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What about the Middle East’s unemployed graduates?

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

Arab countries are often found at the bottom of statistical tables, but the Middle East leads the world in youth unemployment. At over 26.5 percent, this number is more than double the global average of 12.5 percent.

The running joke in the graduate job market in Europe is that postgraduate degrees are the new undergraduate degrees - “without one, you won’t get hired,” I am told. The sad reality is that in the Middle East, degrees mean next to nothing without nepotism, or wasta as it is known in Arabic.

Stories of law and engineering graduates who have been job-hunting for months are no longer shocking. The idea of “take what you’re given,” and working for experience instead of pay, is a phenomenon sweeping the Middle East. The Arab Spring has left investors weary, leading to stagnant economies and graduates feeling the pinch.

Arab graduates not a commodity to export

When 26 percent of young people in the region say they want to migrate anywhere outside the Middle East to find a job, governments must react. They are meant to invest in young people to lead the future of the country, to contribute to civil society, and to continue fuelling the economy.

Sometimes I wonder why the Middle East cannot have normal problems, such as unemployment or a poorly regulated benefits system, like the rest of the world

Yara al-Wazir

Is it our fault that we want to leave, or is it our governments’ fault for not involving us in decision-making or providing us with opportunities to improve our lives and country?

The absence of clear employment systems with clearly defined stages encourages nepotism, which sometimes leads to employment contracts being offered to the least competent applicants. It is no longer about what you know or how well you perform, rather whom you know in the industry you want to work in.

Just as the governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council have introduced regulations regarding the employment intake of nationals, regulations regarding the intake of graduates must be introduced, regardless of their background or the colour of their passports. The responsibility lies with the country in which graduates study.

Refugees feeling the pinch

Refugees of the Arab Spring, and the Palestinian and Iraqi wars, perhaps feel the pinch the hardest. Growing up in foreign countries, and educated at universities that had to bend their rules to admit them, they often find their travel documents impeding their employment prospects.

The bureaucracy attached to creating residency permits for Palestinian travel-document holders is seen to be too problematic by employers, who often go for the easier option and employ someone else.

Although this is understandable, governments cannot accept refugees then abandon the cause. Continued support and refugee integration into local communities will bridge the gaps and benefit the local government and people, as well as the refugees.

Picky graduates

Graduates are not innocent in this equation; nepotism is a two-way street that both graduates and companies participate in. Single-minding thinking and industry-specific job hunts into saturated markets will not lead to a job as quickly as keeping an open mind to the opportunities that come. Not wanting to experience different industries sometimes means that one is left with no experience whatsoever.

Our graduates’ dependence on nepotism, or acceptance of the difficulty of finding a job, leads to soft skills and no work experience upon graduation. Clubs and societies are joined to socialize, rather than to develop communication, interpersonal and organizational skills, all of which come through during the interview process. Sadly, it is a matter of not learning how to harvest crops because the farm is in constant drought. No one is particularly to blame for this despair.

Sometimes I wonder why the Middle East cannot have normal problems, such as unemployment or a poorly regulated benefits system, like the rest of the world. Then I remember that we do, but sadly, the issues that affect the most people are overshadowed by attempts to topple governments over and over again.

Since 2008, the job market has been tough everywhere, but the Middle East has always had a poor reputation for it, regardless of the global economic climate. Graduates need to be given a chance to prove themselves, to work, to make use of their degrees, and to give back to their country, and it is the newly elected governments that can make this happen.

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Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.