The fragile future of jobs in the Middle East

Businesses will find new opportunities after Covid-19, but the resilience of governments and workers will be tested
A barber gives a customer a haircut after coronavirus restrictions were eased, opening shopping centers, gyms, barber shops, among other sites in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

According to a study by Knight Frank, a property consultancy, the number of ultra-high-net-worth individuals in the Middle East is projected to increase by almost 25 per cent in the next five years. That would be, in no small sense, a positive development; part of the figure is attributable to the quickening pace of diversification strategies adopted by various – though not all – governments in the region.
But just as the creation of more millionaires and billionaires can be a symptom of economic success and dynamism, it cannot eliminate the impact of serious, structural flaws in a number of the region's countries, such as deepening and extreme inequality. A rising tide lifts all boats, goes a once-popular saying among economists. As the political and economic quakes of the years since the 2008 financial crisis have shown around the world, however, a tide that rises too unevenly is at risk becoming a dangerous tsunami.
The Middle East's disproportionately young population is something of a double-edged sword. In business-friendly countries, up-and-coming entrepreneurs and workers can prosper to great economic benefit. In nations that suffer from widespread corruption, economic inequality and limited education, the frustrated energy of young people can express itself through disaffection and anger. The Middle East, of course, contains countries at both extremes, with people and ideas moving frequently between them.
And the dynamism of the region's job markets, has been facing a real test. Covid-19 is leaving much upturned. Depending on a nation's business environment, this will either present opportunity or ruin.

A robot prepares a coffee at a booth during the Mobile World Congress in Shanghai on February 23, 2021.  / AFP / Hector RETAMAL
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The Middle East's disproportionately young population is something of a double-edged sword

These issues are of course not limited to the region alone. A new report from management consultancy McKinsey says that  one in 16 workers, across eight countries surveyed (none in the Middle East), will have to look for new jobs, even whole new careers, as a result of the pandemic.

Realising this threat, many are opting for "safer" sectors. In the UK, for instance, the number of students applying to arts degrees is plummeting, while degrees such as nursing, medicine and computer programming are rising sharply. .
The flipside of the report's findings are perhaps more surprising, given the huge economic impact of successive lockdowns: 15 out of 16 employment opportunities are predicted to survive.
It would be unwise to find excessive comfort in these figures. Before the arrival of the virus, the nature of employment was already changing, in a manner that required workers to become a lot more adaptable than before. Rapid technological development, a booming AI sector and more digitisation may destroy a number of jobs, even as they create others.
The skills that do land young people work are ever more technical and niche. Education is struggling to create curriculums that match the pace at which modern understanding develops, often making syllabuses obsolete.

In the Middle East, the broader truths presented by McKinsey's report are only becoming more relevant as the region advances. The continued rise of ultra-rich people in the region's business community is a testament to the region's possession of a talented, entrepreneurial class that understands what the future looks like. But the pressure is on policymakers to ensure that they do not reach it alone. The rest of society must receive help as it adapts to a new reality, so that it can thrive during the inevitable change to come.