The median age in the Middle East and North Africa is 22 and youth make up 28% of the population. But among this generation, there is widespread dissatisfaction.
The 2023 Arab Youth Survey found that the majority of young people aged 18-24 in North Africa and the Levant hope to leave their country to pursue better opportunities abroad.
In contrast, only 27% of their peers in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, said they have considered emigration, with most saying they never want to leave their country long-term.
The stark divide is down to economic downturn and political instability in the Levant (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories, Syria and Yemen) and North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, South Sudan and Tunisia).
Across these regions, young people have been some of the hardest hit by global inflation and economic recession, which have compounded the development issues the region was already experiencing.
“This is a generation who has lived their whole lives facing challenging job prospects, with an unemployment rate broadly unchanged since the Arab Uprisings,” said Jihad Azour, director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia Department.
“The post Covid-19 conjuncture has made these challenges worse, with a persistently high inflation, adding to cost of living pressures.”
According to a 2022 report from the International Labour Organisation, Arab states face the highest and the fastest-growing unemployment rate among young people.
Almost half of those who wanted to leave the region said their primary reason for emigrating would be to find work, while 12% wanted to pursue higher education.
“They’re much more educated than ever before,” said George Naufal, researcher at the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. “The job market does not match what they learned.”
Young people have little confidence that anything will change, as the economic outlook continues to worsen in countries like Lebanon and Egypt, while in parts of the Levant including Syria, Yemen and Iraq, political stability seems far away.
“Over the last five years, trust that government policies will enable youth to fulfill their dreams has been consistently high in the GCC and low in the rest of the Arab world, much of which has witnessed social unrest over the past decade,” said James Dorsey, senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
And although most young people are looking for work opportunities abroad, economic downturn and political instability is also fuelling demand for international education.
“The more there are challenges, surprisingly, the more there is a higher demand for studying abroad,” said Youssef Medhat, student recruitment manager for the Middle East and North Africa at Cambridge Education Group’s ONCAMPUS.
While young people may be suffering financially, he explained, they are keen to study in countries that have post-study work routes.
In Syria, where the economy has been ravaged by ongoing conflict, Medhat said there is increasing demand for programs like medicine which offer a direct route into a steady career.
“They want to leave the country and, not just that, they want to secure a job,” he said.
Similarly in post-war Iraq, “recruitment is growing bigger and bigger”, according to Medhat.
“At some point, when the country started to become more stable, the demand went down.
“Now, there are a lot of conflicts, uprising and there is a lot of instability again and this is why we’ve seen a lot of demand,” he said.
“That’s also reflected by the amount of agents that we’re working with in-country, so we have more requests for people to become agents to the universities.”
“It’s becoming harder to leave”
The same factors that make young people want to leave can also be barriers to studying abroad.
“It’s becoming harder to leave,” said Naufal. “Most of those who are able to leave tend to be on the wealthier side from the region because migration is expensive.”
Foreign currency shortages in countries like Egypt and Lebanon make paying tuition fees difficult, while visa refusal rates for Syrian students pose another obstacle.
Growth in student numbers heading to major destinations is mixed.
Canada has seen a surge from the region, with almost 10,000 more students granted visas in 2022 compared to 2019. The largest cohorts are from Algeria (7,510 vs 3,620) and Morocco (7,220 vs 4,510), in part driven by Canada’s francophone immigration strategies.
UK numbers have remained steady, with 8,025 higher education students from North Africa and the Levant in 2021/22, compared to 7,080 in 2019/20, according to data from HESA. The largest groups are from Jordan (1,880 vs 1,850), Lebanon (1,540 vs 1,395) and Morocco (1,460 vs 975).
In the US, numbers have dropped slightly since before the pandemic, with 9,439 students from the region in 2021/22 vs 9,919 in 2019/20, according to the Institute of International Education. Students from some Muslim countries were banned from entering the US during some of this period under former president Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
Medhat believes institutions can do more to tap into these markets, rather than focusing on Gulf countries.
“I don’t think all universities realise the demand or how big these markets are,” he said.
Despite the challenge, many young Arabs see emigration as the only way they can build a better life.
“It’s brain drain, but it’s only brain drain because the support system at the destination country allowed those brains to actually flourish and become very successful,” said Naufal. “Those same individuals back home are just wasted talent.”