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Young Arabs want action on wasta, lack of jobs and rising costs

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Job opportunities for the young in the Gulf are strong but wages are low
  • 41% of Arab youth struggling to pay their living expenses
  •  Rising living expenses is the biggest concern for young people
  •  Most young Arabs receive financial assistance from their families
  •  One in four Arab youth are already in debt
  •  29% believe wasta and nepotism should be governments’ top priority

Nearly two thirds of young adults in the Levant are struggling financially and a sizeable minority have fallen into debt, according to this year’s Arab Youth Survey.

The report also highlights spiralling living costs and scarce job opportunities for much of the Middle East and North Africa’s Generation Z. 

The 14th Arab Youth Survey interviewed 3,400 young Arabs aged 18 to 24 in 17 countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in May and June this year. 

Among total respondents across the region, 41 percent said they struggled to pay their living expenses, while a further 15 percent could do so but were unable to save any money. 

The proportion of young adults facing difficulties to make ends meet jumps to 63 percent in the Levant, while it drops to 16 percent in the Gulf. 

Which of the following best describes you when it comes to paying for the expenses you incur on a regular basis?
(Showing percentage among all)

“Learning to budget sensibly and manage money well is a life skill everyone needs,” said Keren Bobker, a senior partner at Holborn Assets in Dubai.

“The first step is to work out what needs to be paid each month, whether that is rent, utilities, loan repayments or food and put that money aside.

“Once you have allocated money to cover the essentials, put some aside to build up an emergency fund, and only then should you spend money on fun things.”

Rising cost of living

Respondents were asked to name some of the biggest obstacles facing the region. Rising living expenses were cited by 35 percent, followed by unemployment (32 percent), the Palestine-Israel conflict (29 percent) and government corruption (28 percent).

“Adults of all ages are struggling to cover their costs,” said Rupert Connor, partner at Dubai-based Abacus Financial Consultants. 

“Generally, in this region, saving has always been a problem. Employer contribution pension schemes are rare and people, especially young people, aren’t usually making their own provisions for retirement.”

Which of the following applies to you?
(Showing percentage among all)

More than half of young Arabs receive financial assistance from their families, and generally the more affluent the country the greater the support.

At least two thirds of respondents in Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait enjoyed their family’s financial backing. That compares with 13 percent in Syria, 31 percent in Egypt and 41 percent in Jordan.

Around one quarter of young Arabs are in debt. With little parental support, 37 percent of Levant respondents have accrued personal debts, while 21 percent of participants in North Africa have done likewise. In the Gulf, the figure is just 12 percent. 

“For those starting out on adult life, having the burden of debt hanging over them is far from ideal,” added Bobker. 

For borrowers in the Levant and North Africa, among the three top sources of debt were student loans and medical bills. That contrasts with the Gulf where excessive shopping and credit cards were two of the top three reasons for falling into debt. 

“Gulf banks offer loans at high multiples to your salary so it can be very easy to rack up sizable debts,” added Connor.

“In the Gulf jobs for young people are quite plentiful, although the salaries tend to be low, so it’s no surprise to learn that so many youth are facing money issues.”

Among respondents, 49 percent believe it will be difficult to get a job in their country. This figure rises to 73 percent in the Levant and 55 percent in North Africa, versus 15 percent in the Gulf where 36 percent say it will be easy.

Youth unemployment was 27.2 percent in MENA last year, according to the World Bank

Time to end wasta

Tackling “wasta” – who you know – and nepotism should be governments’ top priority in order to boost job creation, 29 percent of respondents believe, with 24 percent citing education reform and the same percentage calling for better information about job opportunities. 

“Nepotism is human nature: we’re hardwired to want to hang out with people like us,” said Dawn Metcalfe, a workplace culture advisor, trainer and author.  

“Connections are important, but connections or a network are not the same as wasta – wasta you’re born into, connections are a network you build, and you should build your network before you need it.

“Young people should take the responsibility to create their network that can ultimately help them succeed. They have access to information that wasn’t available before.”

Transparency International’s 2021 Corruptions Perceptions Index, published in January 2022, gave the MENA region an overall score of 39 out of 100, with 100 being least corrupt. 

“No (MENA) country has registered a significant improvement in the last decade,” the index states. “Corrupt use of personal connections – known as “wasta” – reinforces inequality.”

Fewer young Arabs – 39 percent, according to the survey – now want a government job, versus 49 percent in 2019.

Over the same period, the proportion of respondents aiming to work for themselves or their family surged to 28 percent from 16 percent. 

Private industry’s allure is diminishing, with 20 percent of respondents seeking a career in the sector, down eight percentage points since 2019, but those wishing to pursue a career at a non-profit sector nearly doubled to 11 percent. 

“The shift to wanting to work for themselves or for non-profits shows just how much this generation aims to make a difference,” added Metcalfe. 

“Previous generations had similar ambitions, but what’s different now is the availability of information to better find opportunities where you can realise these goals.”

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