No region in the Arab world has been as severely tested over the past two decades as the Levant.
Comprising Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, the Levant’s people have endured foreign invasions, sectarian strife and political instability.
In the process, the world could do little but watch the Levant lose much of its unique cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, rich archaeological history and exceptional human potential, not to mention billions of dollars in missed economic growth.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003, with its regional reverberations, was a watershed event for tens of millions of people.
That geopolitical disaster has been blamed for a series of regional upsets that include foreign meddling in local affairs, the flare-up of sectarian fighting, the waning of central governments, the massive usurpation of national wealth, the emergence of extremist groups and foreign jihadists, the displacement of millions and the horrors of catastrophic civil wars.
Some countries were directly consumed by turmoil, such as Iraq and Syria. Others, namely Lebanon and Jordan, were challenged politically, economically and socially by the aftershocks of what was happening over their borders. The Palestinians continued to suffer under Israeli occupation as hopes for a political settlement based on the two-state solution crumbled.
It is no surprise, then, that the Arab Youth Survey has found that youth’s outlook in the Levant is increasingly bleak, particularly over the past two years. Compared to their peers in the GCC and North Africa regions, young Arabs in the Levant are by far the most pessimistic. Some 86 percent believe that their country of residence is going in the wrong direction, compared to 46 per cent in North Africa and just seven per cent in the GCC.
Aside from the political disarray engulfing countries like Iraq and Syria, all the Levant countries are suffering from economic stagnation.
In Jordan, where more than 70 percent of the population is under 30 years of age, successive governments have failed to address the challenges of growing unemployment, which now stands at 18 percent. The rate is higher among young men, and is almost 30 percent among young women.
The Palestinian territories are not doing any better. In the besieged Gaza Strip, where two million Palestinians continue to endure a 10-year economic blockade; 80 percent of the population relies on food handouts to survive and more than 60 percent of those aged between 15 and 29 in Gaza are out of work; more than double the rate on the West Bank.
On paper, Lebanon’s youth appear to be doing better, with the unemployment rate standing at about seven percent and where those aged between 15 and 24 make up about 16 percent of the population. But most young Lebanese dream of finding a job in the GCC, especially the UAE. And with more than one million Syrian refugees now in the country, the economy remains under tremendous pressure.
Iraqi youth – those aged between 15 and 24 years-old – make up about 19 percent of the population of 32 million. The unemployment rate now stands at about 14 percent, but with a dysfunctional political system, rampant corruption and more than three million internally displaced people, in addition to 8.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, the reality is much worse for young Iraqis than the statistics suggest.
The Syrian catastrophe
That leaves Syria, a country left in ruins by more than seven years of bloody civil war that is still raging in places, and with military interventions by no less than four foreign powers and dozens of armed militias.
The UN estimates that 13.5 million Syrians depend on humanitarian assistance, of which more than six million are internally displaced and around five million are refugees outside Syria. One can only speculate on the social and economic effects the civil war will have on generations of Syrians.
Amid this bleak reality, it is not difficult to understand why a majority of young Arabs in the Levant, 72 percent, believe their best days are behind them. This is a dangerous finding that warrants attention from national governments and the international community alike.
Despair among the youth speaks volumes about the future of such an important, but volatile, region of the Arab world. It explains how the so-called Arab Spring was triggered by disenfranchised youth in its early days before it was corrupted and hijacked by ideologically motivated opportunists.
Arab youth in most Levant countries wanted social and economic justice and an equitable political system. They wanted a future where their right to find jobs, enjoy social and economic stability and progress could be a reality.
This year, though, could provide some much-needed relief. Elections are to be held in Iraq and Lebanon, and they just might put both countries on the path to slow recovery. Syria remains a global challenge, but the guns have at least stopped firing across much of the country. Jordan is attempting, once again, to restructure its economy. The Palestinians will have to wait until the international community can summon the will to end their decades-old suffering.
By the end of the day the future of this region rests on its youth. This is why the current trend must be reversed.
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