Friday, December 23, 2005

Unemployment: The Ticking Time Bomb

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

I just came back from two international conferences. The first, in Berlin, discussed Gulf states’ security, the other in Beirut was about “social issues in the eyes of the Arab media.” Both conferences highlighted a very clear and present danger: Unemployment.
In the Arab world, today, we face three dangers: Economic stagnation, political unrest and extremism. The first two inflame the third. Why have we had these problems for more than thirty years now with little signs of hope? Here is my take: Economic progress is based on creativity, liberty and the rule of law. Creativity cannot flourish in an environment of fear and police rule. Slaves and soldiers are trained not to think for themselves but to obey orders without a second thought. The rule of law can only be maintained with a system of checks and balances. You can’t get that in regimes that put all powers, executive and legislative, in the hands of one great leader or one group of decision makers who think of themselves as owners and not servants of the public. You can’t go far in an environment of unilateralism, nepotism, corruption and favoritism.
Since the creation of modern states in the Arab world, we were promised but so far denied these basic components of civilization and human rights. Most Arab countries today still insist on reforming without changing their mentality, attitude or corrupted systems. They offer opening windows without bringing down the ancient walls of tribalism, one-party rule and individual leadership. And when internal and external pressures persist, they make symbolic gestures, like releasing political prisoners, running sure-to-win presidential elections and allowing some live debate and media criticism that never reaches to the top and can be silenced anytime the givers decide to clamp down.
What does it take to solve the problem of unemployment in the Arab world? In the British Council-sponsored conference in Beirut we studied the worsening situation in leading Arab countries. The role of the media was extensively examined. But study after study showed that we need lots of immediate attention and extensive work to correct the underpinning problems.
Theoretical, political and ideological education systems are the biggest obstacle. Other administrational and social ills like nepotism, red tape, corruption, and state-dependent economies come next. Women as well as religious and racial minorities suffer the most, the young more than the old.
The newcomers to the job market, especially from these groups, find most seats already taken by those who won’t leave before they reach retirement age, beside the socially, economically or politically well-connected and the better prepared. The latter include those who were lucky enough to study in private or foreign schools in subject areas that were most needed, like foreign languages, computer science, engineering and medicine.
In my opinion, the best solution is to open up to the world. In this era of globalization you have no option anyway. So why don’t you start now at your own pace, and with your own initiative?
Opening up means you need to upgrade your standards. You cannot compete for investors if you cannot provide protection and guarantees for their investments. They need stable, workable, universally applicable laws. They expect a minimum level of transparency, accountability and openness. They are used to certain freedoms, liberties and rights. They must have unhindered access to certain government, legal, information and religious facilities.
We should provide their investments with updated and functioning infrastructure, such as communication services, public transportation and business amenities. We must upgrade our local talent, ease foreign recruitment in needed specialties and liberate our labor movement.
But first of all, we ought to change our isolationist, racist attitude towards foreigners. Our religion and Arab culture command us to be hospitable, kind and fair to our guests, no matter where they come from. Our current attitude is alien to what we are and what we stand for. It happens to be bad for business, too.
If we expand the dancing floor we don’t need to limit the number of dancers. In fact, we will have enough space for more outsiders who would enrich us with their talents, ideas and cultures. That is what made America, Canada and Australia such desirable destinations to the world’s best and brightest, including our own. Arab countries are not that crowded. There is enough room for many more people to join and enlighten the party.
Arab regimes don’t need to worry. Here we are not talking revolutions, but evolutional, short and mid-term solutions. Long term ones will present themselves if we start on the right track, at the right speed, with the right attitude.
What Arab regimes should worry about are the economic time bombs, such as unemployment. In the absence of social networks, like free social services and unemployment allowances, what options do frustrated, desperate and humiliated job seekers have?
Wrong turns might be the only available detours when the right road is blocked.

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