Page 69 of our book consists in part of a chart showing the narrowing gap between female and male illiteracy in the Arab countries of the Middle East since 1970. No Osama bin Laden, no rich oil sheikhs. Just rising literacy, particularly for women and girls. Implicitly many children from poor families.Learn more about The Arab Economies in a Changing World at the publisher's website.
The chart is a microcosm of the region’s social, political, and economic trends with which we grapple in the book. Many of us carry the notion in our heads that Arab economic performance has been weak. Not so: over the last couple generations it has been worse than East Asia, better than sub-Saharan Africa — the most comparable in terms of arbitrary borders and weak states, and about the same as Latin America and South Asia. And while economic growth has not been stellar, on many other indicators that we document — female literacy or childhood immunization or life expectancy to name a few — improvements have been spectacular.
Yet evidence suggests that these demonstrable improvements in measurable outcomes have not translated into greater happiness or satisfaction. One possible reason is an absence of “voice”: while the region’s economic performance may not be distinctive, its combination of authoritarianism and political stability is unparalleled.
And though the Arab world has suffered no major economic crisis, it now faces a major challenge: the demographic imperative to create jobs for the large cohort of young people reaching working age. The stakes are high: rapid labor force growth in many Arab countries has contributed to despair among young people about their job prospects and consequent worries about political stability. It is not difficult to envision the region caught in a downward spiral where impoverishment, discontent, militancy, and repression feed upon one another, deterring reform and impeding growth.
Yet this is not the only possible future path. If the Arab world’s daunting employment challenge can be successfully addressed, the region’s demographics could turn from a potential liability to a valuable asset. Growing prosperity, confidence, and optimism about the future could underpin movement toward greater political openness and social tolerance. The recognition that neither of these alternatives can be excluded is both an antidote to despair and a call to action.