When one reads about the Middle East, it is often in relation to social turmoil and religious extremism. To limit our reflection on this important region of the world to this alone would do it grave injustice. The Middle East is the birthplace of some of the most notable and influential ancient civilizations as well as three of the world’s most significant religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism). Its nations are diverse in their cultural and socio-economic situations, as well as their cultures and global influence.
The region commonly referred to as the Middle East is located at the intersection of Asia, Europe, and Africa. An exact delineation of which nations belong to the Middle East is debated, and is often drawn along socio-political lines rather than geographic ones. Some nations typically categorized as Middle Eastern include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Turkey, amongst others.
Although certainly not all of the Middle East can be boiled down to violence and turmoil, we must acknowledge the high level of instability and unrest within the region. Extreme Islamist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda have made global headlines and raised high levels of concern. The conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians have exploded in continuing violence, with little sign of reconciliation in sight. Conflicts have created millions of refugees.
Dr. Adele Hayutin, from Stanford University, offers several demographic considerations, which she points to as contributing factors to the unrest in the Middle East. The most significant of her findings in her report “Critical Demographics of the Greater Middle East: A New Lens for Understanding Regional Issues” (2009, Mar. 13) are as follows:
The Middle East is one of the fastest growing regions in the world, with a population projected to grow from 600 million (in 2005) to 1.1 billion by 2050, a 77% increase (p.6)! This is largely because the Middle East has one of the world’s highest fertility rates (p.3) Afghanistan, for example, has the highest at a rate of 7.5 births per woman (p. 13). These population gains are highly concentrated in a few countries; three of the largest projected population gains (Pakistan, Egypt, and Afghanistan) will account for 50% of the total gain for the region (p.21). The countries experiencing the most dramatic growth (Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories) are among the world’s least stable (p.6).
The Middle East has the largest refugee population in the world, an estimated 8 million or more at the end of 2007 (p.3). These massive movements across borders both reflect and have added to instability and conflict within the region. Millions of migrants have also poured into Europe from these regions (p.6).
The Middle East has a notable “youth bulge,” with young adults (15-29) comprising 40% or more of the total adult population in the majority of Middle Eastern countries (p. 6). It has the world’s second youngest population, just behind an AIDS ravaged sub-Saharan Africa (p.17).
It is this last point that Hayutin and others particularly attend to. There are extreme difficulties related to this rapid growth of the working-age population. First—economic problems:
A critical economic challenge facing the fast-growing populations of the Middle East is how to absorb the huge working-age population and provide economic opportunities, jobs, and housing. While workforce growth in the advanced economies is generally a positive indicator for economic growth, for many of the youngest countries, growth in working-age population will be faster than their economies can absorb. For many of these countries, this growth may be a political and economic burden rather than a potential economic stimulus. (p. 22)
She writes that the countries with the youngest populations (Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Palestinian Territories) are in a “dangerously fast” category of growth, and even the countries with young and gradually aging populations are still expanding their workforce at a rate higher than can be absorbed (p. 22). She says, ‘The key to reaping potential youth bulge benefits [in economic growth] lies in modifying economic and social institutions to mobilize swelling working-age populations,” but the Middle East currently has one of the world’s highest rates of unemployment (p. 27).
Furthermore, “youth bulges” are correlated with political instability and civil unrest (p. 27). Some scholars have documented youth bulge countries as two times more likely to experience civil conflict and unrest compared to countries with lower proportions of young adults (p. 27).
Skew too young and you get a revolution: an analysis of all the countries which have gone through a revolution, coup attempt or civil war in the recent ‘Arab Spring’ shows that every single one of them had a median age of 24 or younger. The story of political revolutions is more often than not the story of starting with a nation which has low life expectancy and high birth rates (hence a young median age) and adding high youth unemployment, one or another radical ideology and a food price spike.
Bowyer continues by arguing that increasing education rates, particularly higher education, has only furthered the problem:
But if a country has a large youth co-hort and a high college matriculation rate and at the same time has high unemployment, then higher education seems to function as an unrest accelerant. It raises expectations, but fails to deliver on a higher standard of living. It exposes young people to revolutionary ideologies, and instills attitudes of condescension and even contempt for the more cautious politics of their elders. And it connects people with these ideas and attitudes and frustrations with other people who share them. This is a recipe for violence and bloodshed…
…capital markets and revolutions are not opposites. They are alternatives, alternative answers to the question which all young people ask, “How can I create the future that I want?” If the peaceful world of markets as a road to the future is cut off, as it has been for decades in the countries under question, than the violent world of revolution becomes the answer by default.
Thus, if we search for an answer to the rising violence and unrest in the Middle East, we may do better to focus on the demographic issues more than the religious ones.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What is your interest in studying the Middle East?
What are your thoughts on the demographic-related explanations given to the instability within this important region of our world?
Why do you think our news reporters and politicians focus on the violence and religious extremism and do not focus on these demographic factors which have been so clearly documented?
How do you think international relations and policies should be altered considering the destabilizing effects of young and exploding populations and rapid changes in age structure?
The Middle East is a very important region of our world and has had significant influences in civilization and religion.
Researchers have reported significant demographic factors contributing to the unrest and violence we see in the Middle Eastern region. We must consider these in our discussions of the Middle East and as we consider the violence there.