Unemployment Issues in the Arab Countries


The problem of unemployment has been a concurrent social issue for many years in many countries of the world. High unemployment rates derive from the macro-and micro-economic situation, political context, and demographic trends, which all constitute an influential set of factors. For Arab countries of the Middle East, the problem of unemployment occurred to be one of the most significant challenges of the latest decade. Indeed, as the statistical data provided by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the unemployment rate in the region, as of 2018, constitutes 7.3 percent, which accounts for approximately 4 million individuals who have a registered status of actively seeking employment. Importantly, when excluding the countries of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), “where large numbers of migrant workers work,” the rates significantly change (ILO, “Employment Promotion” par. 3).

The current unemployment rate in non-GCC countries is estimated at 10.8 percent, which imposes a critical situation for the region. Moreover, evident inequality in labor opportunities for female workers and youth is observed in the Arab world, which only exaggerates the scope of the problem. Since the identified social issue impacts numerous populations in the Arab countries, it is relevant to investigate it.

Main body

There are many challenges that the countries of the Middle East face, and that constitute a framework of determinants of high unemployment rates. According to Salama and Judit, the question of unemployment determinants is insufficiently covered for the Arab countries and requires a more in-depth addressing in order to facilitate the policies and resolve the tentative issue (63). One of the factors that drive unemployment is the leading role of natural resources-related spheres in national economies. Due to the predominant dependence of these countries on the oil and gas industries, other spheres are less developed and attract less labor force (Nasiri and Hamelin 58). Indeed, since the country of the Arab region is particularly involved in the distribution of natural resources and occupies a large share of the world’s oil and gas market, the majority of investments are directed into this sphere. However, the offer in the labor market mismatches the demand in both qualitative and quantitative characteristics. Moreover, the lack of infrastructure in the majority of Arab countries diminishes employment opportunities for the population and obstructs the timely reduction of the concerns in the labor market.

At the same time, there are other micro-economic factors connected with the countries’ political environment. Since non-GCC countries are significantly impacted by local armed conflicts and overall political instability, the high level of poverty and unemployment are the consequential problems (ILO, “Employment Promotion”). Since the times of the Arab Spring, when the protests against the political regime addressed the unemployment problem among other demands, the number of people in search of work steadily increased (Drine). The political context of the discussed problem induces another substantial factor that adversely impacts the employment situation in the Arab region. Indeed, due to the rising threats in some countries, including Syria, in particular, the number of refugees and emigrant workers has significantly increased (ILO, “Employment Promotion”). Consequently, the countries that accept refugees, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and others, encounter additional challenges employment-wise due to the increased competition in the labor market.

Another important issue in relation to unemployment in the designated region is the disproportionate distribution of public and private sector entities. According to Nasiri and Hamelin, the Arab region’s public sector is bloated while the private sector is underdeveloped and insufficiently funded (57-58). The same challenges are identified by the ILO, which emphasizes that the private sector is weak due to the “concentration in low-value-added, low productivity jobs” (ILO, “Employment Promotion” par. 1). To a similar extent, the educational perspective has a particular influence on the worsening of the unemployment problem. Indeed, the potential skills employees obtain and develop during education mismatch the labor market demand. Also, the increased investment in education does not provide expected employment outcomes (ILO, “Employment Promotion”).

Overall, high female and youth unemployment in the countries of the Arab world “have negatively affected economic and human development, generating more poverty and less economic growth” (Nasiri and Hamelin 58). Therefore, unemployment as a large-scale social issue significantly impacts the everyday lives of millions of Arab citizens and requires relevant policy development and implementation.

Comparative Perspectives on Unemployment in the Past and the Present and on the Local and Global Scales

In order to estimate the scope of the current problem with unemployment rates in the Arab countries, it is relevant to investigate past trends in this area, as well as compare the local problem manifestation to the global situation. When tackling the time dimension, the overall situation in the region has not changed for over two decades. As Drine states, the solving of the challenges related to high unemployment rates “was always considered by MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) countries a top priority in their national development plans” (par. 9). Therefore, the continuously lasting armed tensions between the countries and districts, the underdeveloped infrastructure, low level of education and employment match, and many other issues have been on the political agenda for decades.

Importantly, the political events in the 2010-s induced a more severe manifestation of the problem due to the increasing political instability in many countries of the Arab world. It is relevant to illustrate the unemployment situation in selected Arab countries with statistics from the previous decades. As El-Khoury demonstrates, the average unemployment rate in Somalia in 2007 was 34.7 percent, in Djibouti in 2012 – 54.0 percent, in Mauritania in 2013 – 30.0 percent, in Comoros in 2013 – 22.0 percent (489). It is important to note that throughout these years, the unemployment rates for youth and female workers were the most significant. These indicators varied between 18 percent and 73 percent for youth unemployment and 24 percent and 82 percent for females (El-Khoury 489). The same unstable and highly disturbing increased level of unemployment remains a tentative social issue in the region in the present.

As for the local situation in comparison to the global representation, one might identify similar overall patterns in the changes in the unemployment rates. However, on average, the level of unemployment in Arab countries is higher than in the developed countries of the world. For example, the statistical data representing the unemployment trends in the world between 2008 and 2014 shows that the youth unemployment rate constituted 15 percent on average, while the same indicators for the Arab countries were approximately 30% or higher (El-Khoury 489). The recent situation, as described by ILO, has not significantly changed. In particular, “one in five young men and women were out of work in 2018 in the Arab region, compared to a global youth unemployment rate of 11.8 percent” (ILO, “Employment Promotion” par. 4). As for the current situation, the emerging economic crises and increased globalization-induced migrant worker movement threaten the stability in the labor market on a global scale and can potentially cause the growth of unemployment rates. The same patterns of change are forecasted for the Arab region.

Moreover, the expected worldwide population growth brings new concerns with respect to workforce opportunities. Indeed, according to Drine, “the lack of good jobs has the potential source of further social disruption and conflict, particularly as the population is forecast to increase to 410-460 million by 2020” (par. 2). Thus, the unemployment issue in the Arab states reflects the general global tendencies; however, it is aggravated by a scope of local determinants that obstruct the development of an effective solution to the problem.

Unemployment Representation in Mainstream Political and Media Discourse

Since the issue of the growing unemployment rates and the lack of effective policies have a broad impact on all populations of the Arab world, it attracts the attention of the local and global communities. After the Arab Spring event, the level of media attention attracted to the social issues in the Middle East increased. Problems such as migrant workers, educational vulnerabilities, inadequate investment in the private sector, informal employment, working poverty, and inequality of opportunities are addressed by Western media more than by local ones (ILO, “Employment Promotion”). As the statistical data demonstrate, the involvement of the Arab population in informal work is very high and constitutes approximately two-thirds of all the working population (ILO, “Employment Promotion”). These issues find their representation in the media but are less addressed in the political domain on a general scale.

Indeed, the mainstream political discourse of the Arab states insufficiently represents the issue of unemployment. Only several countries of the region have included the reduction of unemployment rates into their national development plans. Moreover, only four countries have developed special national policies aimed at combating the persistent increase in overall dysfunction of the labor market, high level of youth unemployment, and female underrepresentation in employment. These countries include Jordan, KSA, Iraq, and the UAE; the latter has included the unemployment policy into its national agenda just recently (ILO, “Employment Promotion”). As for the other states of the Arab region, their political spheres are less concentrated on employment issues due to other economic, political, and military issues.

The Effect of Unemployment on Men and Women of the Arab World

Considering the scope of factors and outcomes associated with the high rate of unemployment in the countries of the Arab world, the level of their impact on the lives of all groups is difficult to overestimate. Academic literature identifies that the instability and dysfunction of the labor market in Arab states have severe economic implications that trigger a higher level of poverty, political instability, and diminished well-being of the population (Nasiri and Hamelin 57; Salama and Judit 63). However, the most disturbing issues in relation to unemployment are those concerning females and youth.

Female workers’ underrepresentation in the labor market has been an ongoing issue in Arab countries. Females are commonly involved in unpaid childcare, informal jobs, or underpaid positions. Importantly, as the statistics indicate, “the Arab region has the world’s lowest rate of female labor force participation – 18.4 percent compared to the global average of 48 percent” (ILO, “Gender Equality and Non-Discrimination” par. 2). As the graph (Figure 1) retrieved from the statistical data provided by El-Khoury shows, the percentage of women involved in the labor market is predominantly lower than men across all the countries of the Arab world (488).

Labor force participation rates.
Figure 1. Labor force participation rates. (El-Khoury 488).

Indeed, compared to the world’s indicators, the situation with female participation in the labor market seems of significant concern.


Moreover, not only the employment percentage among women in comparison to men is lower but also the unemployment rate is elevated. As the report from the ILO demonstrates, the rate of unemployment of females in the Arab states is estimated at 15.6 percent, which is “three times higher than the world average” (ILO, “Gender Equality and Non-Discrimination” par. 3). Another important feature in relation to gender disparities is that women are underrepresented in managerial positions.

Their presence in high-rank jobs is approximately 11 percent and is significantly lower than the world average. Similarly, the level of youth unemployment in the Arab states is the highest in the world, which is related to the inadequacy of the educational system (Drine). Therefore, the analysis of the overall manifestations of the social issue of unemployment in the Arab states allows for concluding that this problem is of significant relevance to the population of the region. The dysfunctional labor market, the lack of adequate policies, insufficient development of education, disruption in private and public sector distribution, and gender and age inequality constitute a set of tentative issues that require immediate action.


Drine, Imed. “Youth Unemployment in the Arab World What Do We know? What is the Way Forward?”. United Nations University Wider Angle. 2016. Web.

El-Khoury, Gabi. “Labour Force and Unemployment in Arab Countries: Selected Indicators.” Contemporary Arab Affairs, vol.9, no. 3, 2016, pp. 487-491.

International Labour Organization. “Employment Promotion”. ILO. Web.

“Gender Equality and Non-Discrimination”. ILO. Web.

Nasiri, Niloofar, and Nicolas Hamelin. “Entrepreneurship Driven by Opportunity and Necessity: Effects of Educations, Gender and Occupation in MENA.” Asian Journal of Business Research, vol. 8, no. 2, 2018, pp. 57-71.

Salama, Ahmed, and Olah Judit. “Key Factors Affecting Unemployment in the Arab World.” Central European Journal of Labour Law and Personnel Management, vol. 2, no. 2, 2019, pp. 63-76.

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