With one of the most youthful populations in the world, where, depending upon the country, between 50 to 70 percent of the populace is under the age of 35, the Asia, Middle East and North Africa region (AMENA) also suffers from one of the largest global youth and female un- and under-employment rates. Moreover, in an ironic twist, in a number of countries, those with higher levels of education also tend disproportionately to compose the ranks of the unemployed. An increasing number of individuals with college education still live with their parents because they cannot afford to get married, start families, or rent, let alone buy, their own houses. Youth disillusionment, disaffection, and exclusion have already contributed to large-scale regional instability and supplied recruits for populists, demagogues, and exponents of violent extremism.
Nor is this all. Advancements in automation, which appear to be accelerating at an increasingly rapid pace, are poised to make not just many of today’s menial jobs, but an increasing array of skilled employment, redundant in the not too distant future. Now more than ever, therefore, the region should strive to transform its demographic liability into an asset by, among other things, laying the foundations for the emergence of vibrant, competitive, modern, diversified, and innovative economies, capable of promoting sustained and inclusive growth as well as job generation. Such a transition is bound to be difficult, however, since, apart from a few notable exceptions, the productive and innovative capacities of Muslim majority countries in the AMENA region remain limited at best. Most countries are incapable of iterating and improving on existing technology, let alone inventing new products, services, and applications. Instead, extractive and rentier economies as well as dependence on government-led infrastructural investments, heavy industry, and low-end and low value-added products and exports are the norm rather than the exception. Even Turkey, whose economic success remains unmatched in the region, is still in the incipient stages of building an innovation economy.
Nevertheless, establishment and entrenchment of innovation economies and their merger with entrepreneurship is indispensable if the region is to attain the type of growth, job creation, middle class development, youth, female, and civil society empowerment, as well as private sector expansion that would enable it to successfully compete and thrive in the 21st Century. Promotion of entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial mindset, strengthening the private sector, and improving management and governance are essential. Indeed, without flourishing entrepreneurship, robust private sectors, capable management, and effective governance, AMENA countries would not be able to escape the vicious cycle of un-and under-employment, nor the baleful attendant consequences associated with such unemployment, with which they are currently plagued. Encouragement of entrepreneurship in particular is indispensable, as it will enable young people to take advantage of their innovation and creativity to create jobs, improve economic performance, and contribute to the uplift of their societies while promoting more dignified modes of existence. Otherwise, given the number of young people now entering the workforce as a result of the youth bulge, the private sector in its current anemic form, hobbled by the burden of bureaucracy, will not be able to create the requisite jobs.