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Arab Prospects Beyond the Arab Spring

CAIRO – In December 2013, at a makeshift cultural center in downtown Cairo, a young Sudanese recited poems from The Papers of Room No. Eight, a collection written by the Egyptian poet Amal Donkol weeks before his death in 1983. He finished his recitation with the poignant “Do not dream of a happy world”; tears sparkled in the eyes of the elderly woman next to me. It was a fitting reflection on current conditions in the Arab world nearly three years after the start of what came to be known as the “Arab Spring.”

Two-thirds of the 330 million Arabs alive today are under 35 years old. But almost all Arab educational systems do not, in general, produce graduates who are competitive in the global job market. This means that the jobs that have any wealth-creation potential are beyond their reach. The exclusion of a significant percentage of Arab women from the labor force exacerbates the problem.

For example, though the Gulf states have a very young native population, their economies are fueled mainly by the expatriates who constitute more than 30% of the region’s inhabitants (estimates vary widely). Meanwhile, the proportion of Arab Christians throughout the Middle East has dwindled from around 20% of the total population to about 5% over the last century. As a result, for the first time in at least two centuries, Arab societies are increasingly losing their cultural and intellectual diversity. If these trends continue, the Arab world’s demographic dividend will become a catastrophic burden.

Most Arab oil producers are major credit exporters to the West, and several Gulf states’ sovereign wealth funds are among the most dynamic – and influential – actors in global capital markets. And yet the Arab world remains almost entirely dependent on oil exports, with even countries that have no reserves relying on fiscal support and remittances from the oil exporters.