Improving the Future of MENA Region by Engaging with Its Youth

Photo: European Union



Author: Daniel Moshashai


In 1995, the Barcelona Declaration started the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) which later morphed into the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in 2004 (Achampong, 2012). This policy is one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching approaches towards establishing an area of regional security and free trade around the European Union (EU). However, more than 20 years after the Barcelona Declaration, the ENP has left a disappointing legacy and is faced with growing challenges, particularly concerning the youth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Indeed, chronic unemployment, limited opportunities and low potential for social contribution have added to adverse developments in the region such as violent extremism and emigration. In the face of such challenges, the EU has slowly adopted countervailing and constructive policies which need to be stepped up in order to bolster the EU’s role as a force for good in MENA.



MENA youth – problems and opportunities


The MENA is currently undergoing a youth bulge and is expected to be home to 100 million young people by 2035 (Fehling, 2016). Although this demographic change could potentially represent an invaluable potential for economic development, structural and political hindrances are unfortunately turning this opportunity into a liability. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between a youth bulge and the risk of violence, and a gender lens helps a lot at discovering the different consequences of demographic change on both young men and women. For example, while women are more likely to acknowledge their mental illness, men have been distinctively victims to behavioural issues such as aggression, hyperactivity and illicit substance abuse. According to the World Mental Health Composite International Diagnostic Interview, 9.5% of women in the MENA region have claimed to be suffering from mental illness compared to 2.5% of men (Eloul, 2009).


Although the rates of depression in the region are not substantially higher than the global ratio, it is true that health-related issues in MENA reflect a deeper structural problem: the lack of opportunity and social expectations which lead to the rupture of social relations for many young people. Indeed, in 2012, 24.5% of young male and 42.6% of young female were unemployed in the region (Fehling, 2016). This high youth unemployment has had its toll on the youth’s ability to make a living and raise a family, which are strong traditional expectations in the region. This sense of disempowerment has been worsened by political corruption and nepotism: 2/3 of respondents from a Jordanian survey claimed that success depended on the status of the family and not personal efforts (Fehling, 2016). Additionally, leisure such as entertainment and sports have been in dire supply in the region, which according to Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud has been the prime reason for emigration. Indeed, according to him, push factors toward migration are much stronger than pull factors attracting youth from MENA into Europe because youth in MENA are “asked to age before their time” (Fehling, 2016). The region offers little positive outlets for young people’s energy and aspirations beyond a broken labour market, an overbearing military service and religious compulsion.


In her study of social exclusion in MENA, Hilary Silver from the Wolfensohn Centre for Development has exactly forwarded the issue of leisure as a policy initiative for the region. In fact, she has advanced a four-points policy proposal for tackling social exclusion in MENA consisting in increasing access to arts, social venues and sports; improving access to the internet and the online job market; ameliorating and expanding the quality of higher education and finally bolstering aid to youth entrepreneurship and labour-intensive economic growth (Silver, 2008). In all these four fields, the EU represents a model and can provide expertise and best practices for the MENA region.



EU and MENA youth


As the ENP has shown, the EU is an important stakeholder in the economic and social development of the MENA region. Its involvement has been multifaceted and involved many fields but has more particularly given prime attention to the creation of several youth forums. On the 23 March 2017, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative launched the Young Mediterranean Voices Plus (EEAS, 2017) which with the Euro-Arab Youth Forum established since 2008 (Council of Europe, 2017), represent channels for cross-cultural dialogue between European and Middle Eastern youth, on many global issues. Primarily upholding the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 which recognises the threat posed to stability and development by youth radicalisation (UN, 2015), such forums have aimed at building open society and tackling terrorism, extremism and populism. With a budget of €3.2 million for 2017-2020, the Young Mediterranean Voices programme is set to enhance the inclusive representation of youth in tackling these global issues. The last meeting of the initiative was held on 3 – 4 May in Brussels (EEAS, 2017). Concurrently, the sixth Euro-Arab youth forum with 80 participants has met this April in Morocco to explore the role and practices of education in building a peaceful cohesive society and in preventing discrimination, hate speech and islamophobia.





These achievements are welcome but need to adopt a more ambitious scope which could benefit from MEDA’s resources (the EMP’s financial instrument) and the EU’s expertise on economic and social issues. On the economic side, the EU’s private sector, which is deeply involved in MENA, could introduce best practices in the form of traineeships while financial services providers could help push away barriers to credit by offering innovative and inclusive consumer loans, thus enabling the youth and especially women to find self-sustaining livelihoods.                          

In the realm of youth entrepreneurship, the EU has already adopted a project initiative between Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine in 2015 with almost €1 million offered to promising young companies (EEAS, 2015). In the field of humanitarian aid, the EU has been particularly generous with its financial contributions to refugee camps across MENA in collaboration with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine: in 2016, the EU handed €7.3 million to improve employability for Palestinian and Syrian refugees across the region (EEAS, 2016). Considering the high percentage of school dropouts among Syrian refugees in Lebanon, approximating 70%, it is in fact very important for the EU to provide young refugees with enhanced livelihoods so that their current catastrophic living conditions do not lead to further violence and extremism (Fehling, 2016) Finally, the EU should pay particular attention to the region’s health issues by notably tackling the lack of leisure and pushing for more awareness towards mental illness and maladaptive coping mechanisms which lead to further depression and negative behaviour. Therefore, enhancing partnerships between universities and advancing a more comprehensive cultural, artistic and athletic policy of cooperation should be another priority for the EU in its foreign policy towards the MENA region. 



Daniel is studying a Master of International Affairs between the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and Johns Hopkins University. He has previously graduated with a Politics Bachelor from the School of Oriental and African Studies and has specialised in the Middle East region. With diverse experiences in translation for an Iranian NGO, business research for a Kenyan FinTech Start-up and Human Rights monitoring in London, Daniel is mostly interested in identifying the different areas of common interests between the EU and the Middle East, beyond short-term geostrategic interests and cultural misunderstandings.  






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Fehling, M., Jarrah, ZM., Tiernan, ME., Albezreh, S., VanRooyen, MJ., Alhokair, A. and Nelson BD. (2016). Youth in crisis in the Middle East and North Africa: a systematic literature review and focused landscape analysis in East Mediterranean Health Journal; 2016 Mar 15; 21(12):916-30.


Silver, H. (2008). Social Exclusion: Comparative Analysis of Europe and Middle East Youth in Middle East Youth Initiative Working Paper No.1, Brown University.


UN, (2015). Security Council, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2250 (2015), Urges Member States to Increase Representation of Youth in Decision-Making at All Levels [Online] Available at: Accessed: 27 Apr. 2017.

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