Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

A word on unemployment | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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If it is true that the Arab Spring revolutions have exposed numerous considerable and complex issues, then we must say that one of the most significant is the magnitude of unemployment and corruption, and its subsequent impact. This is compounded by the prevailing fragile work culture within Arab society, specifically among the youth category, and the dramatic changes that have occurred over time.

The Arab states have contracted an economic illness whereby an individual tends to rely primarily on grants and support in order to live and survive. This is done in two major ways: Either the individual will send his children abroad to work and then rely on the remittances which they send home, or he will directly benefit from the domestic surplus derived from oil, minerals and natural resources. This is in addition to other sources of income that are classified outside the traditional economic system, such as donations extended from abroad.

Perhaps, one of the chief reasons behind our deplorable labor system and the severely aggravated unemployment problem is the perception of inferiority surrounding craftsmanship and manual labor, and the misleading social stigma around it. In recent years there has been a grossly exaggerated push towards the service economy, whereby people have gravitated towards this sector more than any other, claiming that it is superior, more worthwhile and more profitable.

The business sector began to instill a sense of disdain towards industrial and agricultural occupations, giving preference to more “elegant” and “white collar” careers such as those in the trade, banking, communications, tourism, marketing, insurance, and real-estate sectors. The image of “manual” professions in the media became associated with negative stereotypes such as body odor, dirt, fatigue, exhaustion, illness and inferiority. This was further consolidated by the vocabulary that was used to describe the people who undertook such professions, such as laborers, navvies or servants, instead of using words that accurately reflect the reality of such crafts, such as farmer, security-guard or traffic conductor.

In all Arab societies, family names reflect traditional professions, such as: al-Lahham [the welder], al-Jazzar [the butcher], al-Tajir [the merchant], al-Attar [the spice dealer], al-Sabbagh [the dyer], al-Khabbaz [the baker], al-Hallaq [the barber], al-Qadi [the judge], al-Khayyat [the tailor], al-Sayegh [the jeweler], al-Moallem [the teacher], al-Hakim [the wise man], al-Fakahany [the fruit vendor], al-Khudari [the greengrocer] and so on.

However, the majority of families bearing such names have abandoned the “crafts” from which their names were derived, turning their back on pivotal sectors of the society’s economy. Hence an imbalance began to emerge and the early seeds of unemployed were sown, and over time, this reached alarming levels. This contributed to a fundamental change and a rapid increase in consumption culture, where the concept of “local produce” was gradually eroded as people found it easier to import goods for a cheaper price, even if the quality was poor, as long as the money was available. This came as a direct result of the negligence towards maintaining, respecting and supporting the domestic production system.

As a result, today our economy has become rich in revenue, but it is devoid of production and recruitment, and fails to add any value. It is crucially important to point out that the major developed countries, despite their active involvement in the service economy and their significant investments in the new digital economy are without exception agricultural and industrial countries first and foremost. These two sectors make up a significant proportion of gross national product and the lure of the service economy, no matter how dazzling it may seem, remains wholly insufficient to form the basis of transitional change. In a country with a large and growing population, and with a high proportion of youth citizens, a domestic industrial system is invaluable.

The problem of unemployment in the Arab world requires a new solution, but perhaps this can be obtained from old experience. We must rebuild trust in the sectors that have suffered negligence, despite the fact that they were successful and proved their worth in the recent past.