Arab youths must be given access to opportunity, especially during Covid-19

Countries in the region have to snap into action now to secure a better future for more than 420 million Arabs

Iraqi families walk in Baghdad's Zawraa Park on October 9, 2020, after the government lifted restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.  / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva – whom I once heard quote Tolstoy at a press conference – last week offered the Arabic proverb "do not delay the work of today for tomorrow". She was urging governments in the region to do everything possible to give their people more economic opportunity.

In her speech to open the Saudi G20 Presidency-IMF Forum, she warned: "Access to opportunity is an issue of deep importance... and it is even more important during the Covid-19 crisis, which is hitting those who already lacked opportunity the hardest."

Decisions made now will affect the lives of more than 420 million Arabs for years and decades to come, she warned. “Preparing them for a rapidly changing global economy is the work of today, and it must not be delayed.”

Ms Georgieva has more to offer than just a wonderful turn of phrase. Her prescience is a blueprint for how government spending across the region could be prioritised for maximum effect, overcoming issues such as cronyism, corruption and waste.

In her speech, she outlined key areas such as social spending, youth and women’s employment and human and physical digital infrastructure – training coders and engineers, in addition to installing fiber cables and towers.

"The region and the world are at a transformative moment – while we face headwinds from the pandemic, we have at least some tailwinds from continued spending to fight the pandemic and the accelerated digital transformation taking place worldwide.”

Internet access for all is a priority, she said.

There is an “efficiency gap” for Arab countries but a third of that could be closed with smarter spending.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 04, 2020, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva speaks at a press briefing on Covid-19 in Washington, DC. African countries will need $1.2 trillion through 2023 to repair the economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, Georgieva said on October 9, 2020. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM

Ms Georgieva did, however, highlight the bright spots of today. For example, in Morocco, cash benefits are being provided to casual workers using mobile phones; Jordan’s initial Covid-19 response included tax relief for companies and cash support for vulnerable workers; Saudi Arabia has made good progress in the last two years in increasing the percentage of women working or seeking work; and the UAE and Bahrain are among the very best in the world in terms of coronavirus testing.

All sections of society, not just the young, will rally around the policies if countries prioritise opportunities for jobseekers

Also, activity in the non-oil private sectors of the Arab world's three largest economies – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – bounced back in September, as movement restrictions related to Covid-19 eased and businesses continued to recover.

This provided respite from what has been, to put it mildly, an incredibly challenging year. There is though hope that by the end of next year we will see a more sustained economic recovery. This is all good news and we are in need of it. But to deliver on tomorrow’s promises, all economies in the region must experience a significant surge in growth.

epa08734632 Lebanese artist Raida Al-Mourad works on a painting during an exhibition of paintings and sculptures at the Al-Sanayeh Park in Beirut, Lebanon, 10 October 2020. The proceeds of the exhibition will be used to help families affected by the Beirut port blasts.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER

Policymakers have been thinking for years now of the bigger, long-term and frustrating goal: of providing economic opportunities to those in the Arab world who need it most. But trying to create millions of jobs for a young and aspirational population and fuel the continuing development of Arab countries – while fighting a pandemic – is like searching for nirvana in a sandstorm.

Yet as Ms Georgieva said, there could be no better time to make a huge leap towards achieving this goal. As protesters in Iraq and Lebanon have shown in recent months, frustration is at a tipping point.

The results of the Arab Youth Survey last week also laid this bare. As reported in The Nationalnearly half of young Arabs have considered leaving their home country because of their dismay at corruption, poor leadership and widespread economic failure, according to the study.

For governments, it is now or never. Change is coming one way or another. And as a result, they have full licence to make courageous and difficult decisions. Because if it is made clear that countries are prioritising opportunity for young jobseekers, all sections of society, not just the young, will rally around these policies.

This will create a counter-balance to the groups or elements that wish to maintain the current situation in many countries in the Arab world that are struggling to engineer real change.

Institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank will also step in to help during the current crisis if they see governments taking the right steps for the future.

As the literary Ms Georgieva concluded, promoting an economic recovery that is more inclusive, and also greener, fairer, and smarter, is the work of today and we cannot afford to delay it.

Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National