Jobless, angry youth fuel Arab unrest

Neglected young people across the Arab world are ready to show their anger against corrupt, out-of-touch rulers. Will their energy open a new era in the region?

They are known as the 'hittistes,' which in French-Arabic slang means, 'the ones who lean against the wall.'

Across the Middle East and North Africa, an army of young people are without employment and without prospects. While they wait for opportunities or look for a job they idly lean against the walls of the Arab world and discuss their plight with others in the same position. With no income, they are still living with their families, unable to marry or start a career. Life is on hold.

Around 60 per cent of the region's population is under the age of 30 – twice as many as in the West - and four in every ten young people are out of a job.

Ageing autocrats using one-party government, or extremely wealthy ruling families, have excluded ordinary people from the networks that distribute power and money for decades. Young people, even graduates, are shut out unless they have connections to the corrupt elites.

'Patronage, nepotism and officially-sanctioned bribery are still the preferred ways of doing business,' says Claire Spencer, an expert on the region's political problems.

Now anger and frustration is spilling over into the streets – so far, students and other young people in Tunisia and Egypt have played a central role rebelling against repressive regimes.

And nervousness about youth is rising in neighbouring countries.

Arab rulers and their elites, usually from an older generation, worry about maintaining control. In some countries, youth unemployment has risen in spite of increased university education, leading to disappointed expectations. Elsewhere, illiteracy is rife and education is only for the ruling classes.

In Saudi Arabia, one of the most powerful and yet unequal societies in the Middle East, around six in every ten people are under 40. Economic growth has not kept up with the baby boom and the government actually cut back on education spending, leaving many young people unskilled and out of work.

All change please
Calls for political reform and widening prosperity have so far fallen on deaf ears. Tyrants become addicted to the perks for friends and family that flow from keeping the rest of the population locked out of the political process.

With uprisings rumbling across the region, and young people using technology to watch the developments eagerly, is it too late for the Arab old guard? Or will they heed the warnings and bring their young people in from the cold?

You Decide

  1. 'The old guard of arab leaders are on the wrong side of history.' Do you agree?
  2. Does real life begin when you leave home? Get a job? Get married? How would you feel if you couldn't do these things?


  1. Write a scene from a play about 'hittistes' deciding whether or not to join a street protest.
  2. Draw a map of the Arab world showing the population profiles of different countries and their different political systems.

Some People Say...

“Young people should wait their turn.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is the Arab population so young?
Poverty makes the age at which people die lower than in the rich West, and larger families are encouraged by religion. Over time, this creates a 'youth bulge.'
Which are the countries affected by these angry young men and women?
In Algeria, Morocco and Yemen, the police state is under threat from young people angry about their lack of freedom or economic opportunity. The Tunisian regime has already fallen after a popular uprising this month. Egypt's story is reaching its climax this week.
Who's next?
In Yemen, the poorest country in the region, more than two-thirds of the population are under 24 and half of them can't read or write. Protests this month have challenged President Saleh's attempts to change the constitution to extend his rule.
What about Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states?
In Saudi Arabia there are voices calling for reform to help the poor and jobless, but so far society remains divided and harshly controlled by religious police and a rich royal family. But in some Gulf states, Qatar for example, a vast amount of money and political energy is going into developing education.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.