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Introduction

The systematic analysis of human resource, especially its composition, representation, and productivity is an important aspect of the study of any country. The demographic dividend of a youth bulge can be transformed positively especially in economically weak countries by enhancing educational and employment opportunities. These countries can take advantage of their physical strength to intellectual potential. But without due implementation and proper establishment of necessary infrastructure, the youth population can become a source of unrest rather than a national resource.

Over the past couple of decades, the demographic transition from having high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates in the West Asian and North African region has resulted in the creation of a large number of young population constituting one-third of the total population of the Arab world. This demographic advantage needs to be capitalised rightly and in a positive direction to empower the youth population and to ensure a better future for the region. But unfortunately, the education system in the region has been failing to provide relevant skills for the youth and not ready to accommodate them in the political and administrative system. At this juncture, as most of the states in the Arab world have limited infrastructure facilities and lack productive human resources but with a bulging youth population, the future will be dependent on how this vacuum is filled and what strategies are adopted to address these issues.

Now the demographic transition in the region led to a political transition in the name of Arab Spring since the end of 2010. It was mainly due to the active participation of large number youth, who were frustrated due to the higher unemployment rate, corruption and poor representation in the decision making bodies. A dynamic and developed society can best stimulate, utilise, and reward their vibrant youth. As the Arab world is always chaotic due to its socio-political and economic profiles, the theme of the population study of this troubled region deserves much attention. Contextualising these things, this article is intended to analyse the role of population dynamics of youth in the fate and future of the region.

Youth in West Asia and North Africa

Most of the international organisations consider young people belong to the age group between 15 and 25, later extended the range up to 29 due to the prolongation of schooling (Paciello and Daniela 2014; United Nations 1993 & 2005; Council of Europe 2003). Historically, the age grading has not been part of the feature of Arab societies. “Youth” or “young people” is used by social scientists, international organizations, etc. to include variously those age ranges from 14-25, 15-25, 15-29, under 30 and sometimes even up to 35 or 40 (Joseph 2011:5; OECD 2015:20; UNESCWA 2009; Hafferkamp 2014:8; The Global Youth Wellbeing Index 2014; 6). According to the Population Reference Bureau (2007), the median age of most of the countries in West Asia comes under this age. When the highest median age is shown as 32 years for Qatar the lowest for Yemen is at 17 years. For Jordan and Syria, it is 21. When the median age of population at the world level is 29, it is even lower in most of the West Asian countries.

Interestingly, in Arabic, Shabab, a word used to denote youth, includes even those population group aged 30 or above (Hafferkamp 2014: 8). In a West Asian and North African (WANA) context, the upper limit for this category of the population is often extended upwards, spanning 25–34 (Stave and Solveig 2015: 30). Again the definition of ‘youth’ varies for countries in WANA. Among the countries having a youth policy, Bahrain defines youth as those who are in the age group between 15-30 years, whereas Yemen says this category of individuals belongs to age category 0-24 years. In Egypt, it is those between 6-36 years, while Palestine considers them as aged between 15-19 years (Paciello and Daniela 2014; Salehi-Isfahani and Navtej 2009). According to the Middle East Youth Initiative, population aged between 15 and 29 years are youth (UNDP Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) 2016: 22). This group can be described “as a ‘generation in waiting’ to become full adults, struggling with securing jobs, getting married and starting families” (Paciello and Daniela 2014; Dhillon and Yousef 2009).

In the Arab Region, a majority of the population is now under the age of 25 (Arab Human Development Report, 2016). The increasing number of youths in West Asia, according to the Population Bulletin (2007), is due to a dynamic fertility rate and the decline in mortality trend, especially after the 1980s. The significant fertility rate has resulted in a “youth bulge” in major West Asian countries which resulted in youth being one-third of the total population of the region. The growth of the youth population in West Asia is the second highest after sub-Saharan Africa. Youth in general and in the Arab world, in particular, got little or no attention till the last century. Two events at the beginning of the twenty-first century were crucial in bringing the Arab youth into the limelight. The first one was the 9/ 11 terrorist attack in 2011. The second one happened almost a decade later popularly known as ‘Arab spring’. If the former one happened outside the Arab world, the latter swept across the WANA region. These two events challenged many of the existing perceptions and hegemonic assumptions about ‘youth’ in the WANA region. In between these two events, the global financial crisis of 2008-09 also played an important role in shaping the issue of youth. Before these events, especially till the popular uprising in the region; academicians, international policymakers and western publics considered youth in the region merely as a social or demographic phenomenon, ‘youth bulge’. Since then, debates and discussions about this particular phenomenon is a regular one from global to local. Now those youths who were before identified only in terms of demographic numbers or statistics were suddenly given credit as individuals who can make changes or have the potential to change the society, politics and economy of a country, region and the world.

Arab Youth: an Asset to a Burden

According to M.C. Paciello and Daniela Pioppi (2014), the youth bulge is a potential opportunity in any society and state, a “demographic dividend” or “demographic gift”. The assumption here is that youth can become a great opportunity for the development of a country only if they get proper skills, education, employment and adequate human capital policies (Paciello and Daniela 2014). It is important to note that some of the frameworks of analysis regarding youth have constructed them as a “threat”, “challenge” or “problem” to domestic and regional political stability. This assumption is by emphasising the disappointing conditions of a youth bulge and unemployment among them in the South East Mediterranean (SEM) countries. This approach views that youth population is bringing with it specific economic and political challenges for the countries concerned regarding the creation of new jobs and supply of social services (Paciello and Daniela 2014; World Bank 2004 & 2008). Anyhow the importance of young population in contemporary international relations and political economy discourse is growing. As mentioned earlier this scenario is more or less filled with concerns and references about “youth bulge”, “youth extremism”, and “youth unemployment”. However, there is empathy also towards youth empowerment” and “youth dynamism” (Paciello and Daniela 2014). All these scenarios are pretty much evident in the case of the Arab world. Youth in the Arab world have shown their strength and determination when the revolution spread across West Asia and North Africa region within a short period; from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and other areas.

As a quote of Khalaf appeared in the Financial Times immediate after the Arab Spring swept across the WANA region:

He is the young Egyptian who occupied Tahrir Square, and awakened a sleepy population. She is the young Libyan defying the madness and brutality of Muammar Gaddafi. He is the empowered Bahraini and Yemeni youth raising his voice in a resolute call on governments to listen to their people instead of oppressing them. Each revolt has drawn in swaths of its own society, but it is the young Arab who is the driving force; the unassuming leader (Khalaf 2011)

A dynamic and developed society can best reward, stimulate and utilise their vibrant youth; from their physical strength to intellectual potential. But without due implementation and proper establishment of infrastructures, the same youth can be problematic and will become a burden rather a national resource. The deficiency of job opportunities in accordance with the increasing population will create unrest and economic chaos. Recent protests in Greece, France, Italy, Spain, and different parts of the Arab world were triggered to an extent due to the lack of opportunities for young people. Thus youth population represents a dynamic reservoir of any nation that could be a source of strength and can pose challenges to the state and society. While today’s young men and women are more educated than previous generations, but the quality of education is poor. Moreover, these youth face diminishing opportunities to secure good jobs, access credit and housing, achieve financial independence, and form successful families. The region will have to create more jobs soon to accommodate the youth.

Conclusion

The dynamics of the region regarding socio-economic development is very significant as it experiences a demographic boom side by side a flourishing oil boom. This historic opportunity needs to be capitalised rightly and in a positive direction to empower the youth population in West Asia and to ensure a better future for the region. “While the West perceives youth as a demographic asset, the Arab world finds in them a demographic burden,” says Dr. Rola Dashti of the Kuwait Economic Society (Mourad 2009:3). It is very clear that now most of the Arab countries are in trouble; both economically and politically. If the youth bulge creates things more complex, then the region cannot think of a secure and stable future.

Anyhow the demographic reconfiguration favouring youth caused unrest and challenged the established social, political and economic systems in the Arab region. Unemployment, along with the increasing urban concentration of population, often lead to rising extremist tendencies, which in turn lead to unrest and insecurity. The youth bulge, in other words, can be taken as an asset which could be the building bricks of a strong state, with vibrant socio-economic tendencies, by channelising their untapped potential in a positive and creative way. At this critical juncture, as most of the states in the West Asian region have limited infrastructure facilities and lack productive human resources but with a bulging youth population, the future will be dependent on how this vacuum is filled and what strategies are adopted to address these issues.

Today, countries in the WANA region holds their largest youth cohort in modern history. However, the youth in the region encounter various kinds of social, political and economic exclusion and marginalisation. Some of the important problems they face in the region are rising unemployment rates, a weak position in political participation and decision-making processes. The costs of neglecting them from the mainstream socio-economic activities and public sphere can lead to the depletion of human and social capital and can also lead to unrest in the region.

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Lirar Pulikkalakath ,Assistant Professor, School of International Relations and Politics,Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala, India Email: lirarmgu@gmail.com

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