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Mobile Communications

The youth of MENA: Uneducated, unemployed & mobile savvy

Currently, the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) is the youngest in the world, with over 30% (100 million) of its population aged between 15 and 29. These youths, however, are also some of the most unemployed and undereducated young people in the world, due to recurrent instability and chronic mismanagement. 23% of men ages 15-29 are unemployed, and for women of the same age that figure rises to 44%. And even those who attend school aren’t getting a great deal: roughly 50% of primary and middle school students in the region do not meet basic literacy standards.

However, in terms of mobile ownership and internet access MENA has certainly entered the digital age, and its low average age is proving to be an asset. It is no secret that young people make excellent early adopters of technology. If you’re under the age of 25 and living in the US, for example, the chances of you owning a smartphone are almost as high as the chances that Kanye West will do something embarrassing this year. That is to say, about 85%. If you’re over 45, that number goes down by about 15%, as does the probability that you are familiar with Kanye West (don’t look him up; ignorance is bliss in this case).

There is no exception to this rule in the Middle East: Middle Eastern youths are tech-savvy and know their way around a smartphone. However, in the famously unstable, still-developing Arab states, the results of this shift towards connectivity and mobile technology looks a bit different.

The destabilizing influence of a tech-equipped young population was made quite visible by the Arab Spring: Arabic youths, at the forefront of the region’s connectivity boom, threw the area into turmoil in 2010 and onwards. But given that, according to the 2014 GSMA Mobile Economy report [PDF], telecoms and mobile adoption in the area have been growing faster than Zimbabwean currency (but in a good way), its economic contributions may outweigh its disruptive influence. In many ways, it is actually equipping the young adults of MENA to overcome the limitations put upon them by insufficient resources and government mismanagement.

Of course, the Gulf States, with their higher average incomes and better infrastructure, already have some of the highest smartphone ownership rates [PDF] in the world, as well as very significant internet and broadband penetration. Even in less well-off countries, however, technology infrastructure is rapidly expanding. By 2020, the region is expected to see over 340 million smartphone connections—a nearly four-fold increase from 2013’s 88 million.

Mobile transactions

Mobile transactions, popular across most of the global south, are already helping many North African economies, giving them the ability to conduct electronic buying and selling operations despite not having bank access. In Middle Eastern economies, where bank accounts are more common, connectivity provides much readier contact with the global financial markets.

Perhaps most importantly, the underdeveloped eCommerce sector of the Middle East is benefitting from the mobile payments industry, as it provides people with a means to electronically pay for delivery of goods and services. Both industries are still in their early stages, but it is safe to say that they are complementary, and developments in one will likely stimulate activity in the other.

Startup culture

Combined with this financial access, technology in the Middle East has made a whole new culture of entrepreneurship possible. As Christopher M. Schroeder details in his book Startup Rising, employment opportunities for Middle Eastern youths have expanded, whether it’s building apps, creating products, connecting services, or even recycling. Some services can be sold worldwide, such as translation or coding, while others can create new domestic markets.

Case in point: startup investment company 500 Startups made its first investment in the MENA region two years ago, and now sees such potential in the region that it has decided to establish a permanent presence there. It specifically cites the young, technological, driven generation as being instrumental in exploiting “opportunities in mobile tech, eCommerce, video, content, hardware, SaaS [Software as a Service], healthcare, solar energy, education, social networks, gaming, and much more.”

Some of the projects it is currently investing in provide a good idea of what other startups in the area are doing: an online recruitment service (Wuzzuf), an interactive health platform (Etobb), and an eCommerce solution (Shopgo).

The internet revolution may be the MENA younger generation’s way out from under the economic yoke imposed by their governments’ unwillingness to change with the global tides. Even women, who have a much harder time finding employment (and are typically the first to be fired when the economic tides turn) have found success in this growing new market, making up approximately a third of all startup activity in the Middle East. The sad state of the job market may turn out to be the crucible from which new economic activity is born, and, may in turn, spark any number of revolutions in the social and political realms.

Education

In addition to the thriving startup culture, the beginnings of free online education in the Middle East are also starting to show promise: take Mike Dawson’s Ustad Mobile—a platform for delivering educational materials to the underserved, particularly in the Middle East. This is only one of several initiatives to provide both basic literacy and more advanced education to the region, and for those with internet access and English skills, the horizon of learning is nearly infinite.

Finally, the mobile industry itself has grown to a point where it adds 4.4% to the region’s overall GDP [PDF]—and that only counts the one million it directly employs, the 600,000 its services directly support, and the high taxation rate it is subject to. As we have seen, there is a whole realm of possibilities that increased connectivity offers. It may well be one of the best things that has happened to MENA economies in a long time, and once the internet ecosystem has become more firmly established there is a lot of potential for this young workforce to broaden their focus towards technology exports.

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Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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