Startup Region: Leveraging the Youth Bulge to Transform the Arab World

Thursday marked five years since Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power in what has come to be known as the Jasmine Revolution. A well-waged campaign of civil resistance, sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, ultimately led to the upending of Ben Ali’s autocracy and ignited a series of protests across the Middle East and North Africa.

Five years after the first Arab Spring uprising, we have the benefit of hindsight; we can pinpoint, with relative certainty, the various elements that contributed to the revolutions’ occurring when and where they did. Five years on, and we continue to grapple with the inspiring and heartbreaking implications of revolutions in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. A critical element that drove the protests, oft-mentioned in the early days post-Spring but since relegated to the margins of the conversation, is the youth populations of these countries.

For years leading up to the events of January 2011, scholars warned of the dangers of a youth bulge in the Arab world; in particular, many viewed the disproportionately high number of young men in the region as a ticking time bomb. Urban populations especially suffered from the effects of low wages, high unemployment, and inflated food prices. These factors  contributed to a young fruit seller from Sidi Bouzid, Mohamed Bouazizi, setting himself on fire in the middle of a busy marketplace. Bouazizi became the symbol of the Tunisian Revolution, and subsequently an emblem for the other protests and riots that rocked the Arab world in the months following his death.

Today, youth between the ages of 15 and 29 comprise more than 30% of the population of the Arab world—that’s roughly 300 million people. This is the highest proportion of youth to adults in the region’s history, not to mention an incredible and untapped source of economic enterprise. Startups are a growing trend in the Middle East, with youth leading the charge. Western investors have already started to take notice; in April 2015, Google set up its first Arab tech hub for entrepreneurs in the Middle East in Dubai, and there are dozens of other startup hubs from Beirut and Cairo to Riyadh, Irbil, and Amman. Just a few weeks ago, 500 Startups, a leading global venture capital seed fund and startup accelerator, launched a Middle East tech fund to the tune of $30 million.

Amidst the turmoil of the region, Arab youth are turning to new and innovative ways of entrepreneurship and economic enterprise. In a region often characterized by bureaucratic red tape, lack of formal business infrastructures, and weak governance, young people are creating opportunities for themselves and in turn, igniting a path for future economic success in the region.

In the foreign policy world, the Arab world’s youth bulge is frequently bemoaned; as young men languish jobless in urban centers, the allure of groups like Daesh who can offer decent and consistent pay, strengthens. This trend, in turn, plunges a region in chaos into even greater anarchy—and thus, the economic prospects of the Arab world are overshadowed by its pitfalls.

Rather than viewing a high youth population solely as a liability, policymakers should begin to understand the economic benefits of this burgeoning demographic. One scholar, Bessma Momani, already has; in her recently-published book Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring, Momani argues for the existence of a “fundamental intergenerational change,” wherein Arab youth favor entrepreneurialism, political freedom, and cosmopolitanism. These interests can be leveraged to increase capacity of individual entrepreneurs, promote collective organization and advocacy, and facilitate institutional change in the ways that business is conducted and regulated. A recent Ernst and Young survey on global job creation and youth entrepreneurship records that a fifth of entrepreneurs want to affect positive social change; that’s 20% of the population, and in a region of the world where youth are in great supply, the potential for that 20% to make a difference is exponential.

Frequently, the private sector steps in where governments fail. And now, more than ever before, youth are taking matters into their own hands. Young people and those with an entrepreneurial spirit are no longer waiting for the economy to turn around, or for jobs to come to them; they are self-teaching, collaborating, and solving local problems by creating their own enterprises. In effect, youth are driving job creation by driving entrepreneurship. And while entrepreneurship does not immediately stimulate job creation on a massive scale, on an individual level it is a crucial component in facilitating favorable enterprise ecosystems, creating new markets, and encouraging growth.

Sustainable development can only exist in tandem with economic dynamism; the Arab world will be sorely missing out on an opportunity for such dynamism if we do not leverage the youth bulge that has built up over the last decades and use it as an occasion to create real space for entrepreneurship. The growth of economies can be largely measured through the growth of firms, and without new small and medium enterprises—namely, entrepreneurial ventures—in the marketplace, the Arab world’s capacity to compete in a globalized world will fall short of the region’s potential to lead.

Author: Kate Moran

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