Why Employment Trends in the Arab World Matter to the US

New book by Ragui Assaad focuses on Jordan, the 'shock absorber' of the region
December 5, 2019
Photo of Professor Ragui Assaad
Global policy Professor Ragui Assaad. Photo: Bruce Silcox

Global policy Professor Ragui Assaad keeps one eye firmly on the economics of the Arab world from his office at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Assaad, a native of Egypt, studies human development and labor market issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

The latest product of his research is a new book released this week, The Jordanian Labor Market: Between Fragility and Resilience, which he co-edited with Caroline Krafft, an economics professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. The book is the fourth they’ve published with Oxford University Press based on surveys of labor market conditions and other human development topics in Jordan and two other Arab countries: Egypt and Tunisia. They plan to expand their work and conduct their first survey in Sudan in late 2020.

We asked Professor Assaad about this ongoing research and its importance in the global policy arena.

1. Explain the scope of your research into labor markets in the Arab world.
These surveys are longitudinal, meaning they follow people over time. It’s very valuable to evaluate change in these countries over a number of years. It’s a region that gets a lot of media coverage for violence, conflict, and geopolitical competition, but whose human development issues are often neglected.

We recently completed our fourth wave of the labor market survey in Egypt, which is where this work began with the first survey in 1998. We’ve now done two waves in Jordan, in 2010 and in 2016. And we’re getting ready to do a second wave in Tunisia next year. 

We decided to expand our research into Sudan because of its unique position between the Arab world and Africa; it has aspects of both. It’s emerging out of isolation because of past human rights abuses, so it’s really critical to begin this work now. The countries we survey were chosen because of their relative stability, and Sudan is now more stable. 

2. What does your new book tell us about the situation in Jordan?
The time span between the waves of our survey in 2010 and 2016 was a critical period for Jordan and the region. You may recall the Arab Spring uprisings took place in 2010 and 2011. Jordan was not directly involved in these episodes, but it was negatively affected by the changes that occurred in the region as a result of these uprisings and the Syrian civil war that ensued. 

For generations, Jordan has been an island of stability in a very unstable region. It has served as a “shock absorber,” taking in refugees when its neighboring countries were going through conflicts. In 2011, when the region exploded into political unrest, Jordan took in more than a million refugees; by contrast, its population is only about six million. And Jordan’s trading relationships with neighboring countries were affected, too—its flow of foreign investment, tourism, and so on, slowed way down.  

The Jordanian labor market was facing a perfect storm. The number of jobs in the country was declining because the economy tanked. But the number of potential workers was increasing because of the influx of refugees, and the Jordanian population itself is young and growing rapidly. Another factor was the cheap labor coming into Jordan from other countries like Egypt. 

We also noticed a delay in young people entering the labor market. We call that the NEET sector: “not in employment nor education or training.” It’s not a desirable state of affairs. You don’t want young people to be idle. They get anxious, their families get anxious, and that contributes to social unrest and political dissatisfaction. Most of those young adults have gotten higher levels of education but aren’t able to translate it into better employment. They’re not able to get a job, get married, start a family. As that becomes more protracted, they’re in this twilight zone for a longer period of time.

3. How similar is the situation in Jordan to other Arab countries?
There is a similar dynamic playing out in other Arab countries. All of them had some sort of a social contract where, in order for the regimes to buy political stability for a long time, they promised to invest in education. They also gave their citizens an implicit or explicit guarantee that if they were educated, they would get a job in the public sector and by extension, a middle-class existence. 

That contract has been very difficult to maintain because it’s expensive to create enough public-sector jobs, leading to a lot of fiscal pressures. As the social contract eroded in these countries, you started seeing this problem with youth delaying their transition to adulthood. That led to the Arab Spring unrest. 

In countries that have monarchies like Jordan, Morocco, and some of the Gulf states, they were able to absorb the unrest and remain stable. But that doesn’t mean the simmering resentment is not there and can re-emerge as unrest at any time. 

4. Why is this information important for the United States to consider?
What happens in the Middle East can affect things in the US very directly, because we know that state collapse and state failure is a very important producer of terrorism. These tensions do not remain contained in the countries that are having these problems. They get exported, and they can destabilize the international system. 

The most recent situation with the Turkish troops being allowed to invade northern Syria—that’s already been shown to re-energize ISIS, and it may become a threat again. It’s a region that requires very careful monitoring and management. It’s very complex and it requires a variety of interventions, not just military, to ensure stability.

The role of the United States in the international community as a stabilizing force is really important. When the US takes an “America first” approach, that destabilizes things. It emboldens other actors like Iran and Turkey and Russia to come in and fill the vacuum. 

5. How has your research been supported by the Humphrey School? 
We’re living in a global world right now and where you’re located geographically is becoming less relevant. It’s all about being in a supportive environment that values your contribution. The Humphrey School has been such an environment for me, allowing me the flexibility to travel and rewarding the kind of work I do.

Podcast: Learn more about Assaad's research