How Poverty and Inequality Are Devastating the Middle East | Arab Region Transitions | Carnegie Corporation of New York (2023)

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Poverty rates in the Middle East are as much as four times higher than previously assumed

About 250 million people out of 400 million across 10 Arab countries, or two-thirds of the total population, were classified as poor or vulnerable

“Mass pauperization” in the Middle East makes the region the most unequal in the world

A poor family in the Middle East today will remain poor for several generations

With governments in the Middle East unable to deliver basic services and opportunities, young people are turning to religious, sectarian, and ethnic organizations like Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood to fill the void

News reports and political leaders’ statements on refugees, terrorism, migrants, and sectarian wars tend to dominate discussions about conditions in the Middle East. The actual situation is actually far worse, because deep below these surface manifestations of our distress lurks a much more destructive force that contributes to the terrible events we witness daily — a force that has started to tear the region apart from the inside. Poverty and inequality are the twin anchors of an inexorably damaging dynamic that ultimately sends tens of millions of families into agonizing cycles of vulnerability, helplessness, marginalization, and, in many cases, alienation from their state and society.

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The absolute extent of poverty and inequality in Arab lands has been quantified in recent years, thanks to research by organizations like theUnited Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, and theUnited Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), as well as research supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York. As we are learning, rates of poverty and vulnerability in the Arab region are much higher than had been previously thought.

These new insights come from theMultidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which gauges poverty and vulnerability more accurately than previously used measures that relied upon income or daily per capita expenditures to make assessments. Published byUNDPand theOxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), theMPIcaptures families’ actual total life conditions because it expands on family spending to account for other key well-being indicators in health, education, and living standards (such as nutrition, child mortality, years of schooling, sanitation, electricity, drinking water, and assets, among other factors).

According to ESCWA data, 116 million people across 10 Arab countries, or 41 percent of the total population, were classified as poor, while another 25 percent were vulnerable to poverty.

MPI analyses reveal poverty rates as much as four times higher than previously assumed, partly because MPI looks at a country’s wealthiest along with its poorest; earlier daily expenditure measures often missed the whole picture, according to ESCWA economist Khalid Abu-Ismail, who heads a Beirut-based team of researchers that has been exploring every dimension of this issue for several years now. As Abu-Ismail pointed out in a recent interview, according to ESCWA data, 116 million people across 10 Arab countries, or 41 percent of the total population, were classified as poor, while another 25 percent were vulnerable to poverty. This translates to an estimated 250 million people who may be poor or vulnerable out of a population of 400 million. (A family is considered vulnerable if its income barely covers essential life needs, but any drop in income or increase in costs would plunge it into poverty.) That figure represents two-thirds of the total Arab population.

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Arab Social Sciences: Building Capacity — On the Ground

“The future of the region will be made in the region,” says Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York. As a knowledge-sector foundation, the Corporation aims to expand the activity, connection, and impact of social science expertise in the Arab region across a range of critical topics shaping its future, primarily through its Transnational Movements and the Arab Region program...

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These levels of family economic stress are confirmed by separate findings in regional surveys. Regular surveys of Arab individuals’ political/social attitudes and their living conditions across the entire region have been conducted by the Arab Barometer consortium of American and Arab universities and research centers, a Corporation grantee, and by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. These surveys reveal that since 2010, the percentage of families across the region that cannot afford to cover their basic monthly needs, or that can do so only by borrowing or seeking aid, fluctuates between 70 and 85 percent of all families. These indicators of mass pauperization and vulnerability also show that the middle class in non-oil producing Arab states is shrinking. As middle-income families slide into vulnerability, vulnerable families in turn fall into poverty.*

Mass poverty also means that the Middle East is the most unequal region in the world, with the top 10 percent of its people accounting for 64 percent of wealth.** Inequality cuts across virtually every sector of life and society, including the rural/urban divide, gender, income, and ethnicity, because in the Middle East inequality is a deeply engrained structural problem rather than the fleeting result of short-term economic stresses.

Mass pauperization in the Arab world means that several hundred million individuals find themselves with poor basic sustenance, no political power or voice, and little hope for improvement in their lives. Their desperation is heightened by parallel dangers to society as a whole, such as widening corruption and massive environmental abuse. The pain and bewilderment of chronically insecure families exacerbates the cascading trends that now define much of the Arab region: the gradual polarization of individual countries, fracturing along ethnic, sectarian, class, or ideological lines; the focus of central governments on their main political constituents, leading them to retreat from their responsibility to serve all citizens; and insurrections, wars, separatist movements, and political violence spread across the region — often assisted by external powers, with conflicts spilling over to other countries in the form of terrorism, refugees, and migrants.

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When citizens protest declining living standards and diminishing life opportunities, most Arab governments continue to respond with stronger security measures. This approach, usually with consistent foreign support from both the East and the West, has for decades left the Arab region with tens of millions of semi-educated young people without steady jobs or steady income, languishing without hope in the dead-end informal labor market and politically impotent. In recent years we have seen that they are no longer silent. The 2010–11 Arab uprisings, the recurring demonstrations since then in half a dozen Arab countries (especially Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon), and the latest mass citizen rebellions for civilian governance and dignity in Algeria and Sudan have been the most telling political responses to this condition. This feeling of hopelessness in the Arab world also led to the short-lived Islamic State controlling vast swaths of Syria and Iraq, the legal or illegal migration of millions of Arabs to other countries, and protracted civil wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria.

We now also appreciate more clearly that poverty and its attendant inequalities are a long-term threat because they are intimately associated with other deficiencies in education, labor, and political rights that keep people poor, strain societies, and weaken entire countries.

Poverty’s new agony, the latest studies show, is that a poor family today will remain poor for several generations, due to the inability of economies to generate enough new jobs and the debilitating and lasting effects of family conditions on education and child welfare. We now also appreciate more clearly that poverty and its attendant inequalities are a long-term threat because they are intimately associated with other deficiencies in education, labor, and political rights that keep people poor, strain societies, and weaken entire countries. Today, the latest dangerous dimension to this trajectory is occurring before our very eyes in shattered countries like Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and others. Desperate citizens, grasping at any available support to stay alive, open the gates to direct foreign interference in their countries, including by regional powers, which can come in the form of creating and funding militias, providing armaments, or directly engaging in warfare. Destructive direct foreign intervention is one of the most dynamic growth sectors in the Arab region, practiced by Arab governments and nonstate militant groups such as al Qaeda; non-Arab countries like Iran, Turkey, and Israel; and foreign powers like the U.S., Russia, France, and the U.K.

In the face of these troubling realities, one positive note is that we know how we got here, and with better analysis and parallel political will we can find our way out of it. Better governance and more effective public policies can turn around today’s harsh downward trends. A considerable amount of new research by Arab and international scholars is providing the foundational knowledge required to start moving down this path, including numerous analytical and policy-oriented studies by indigenous institutions and individuals supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York and other foundations.

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Hillary Wiesner, director of the Transnational Movements and the Arab Region program at Carnegie Corporation of New York, has long appreciated how academic research can clarify the many contemporary drivers of sustained or intermittent conflicts. She recently explained that Corporation funding aims to build on and draw links to the region’s own expertise on a range of underlying issues like state and citizenship, inclusive economies, cities and services, employment, and education. “We all stand to benefit from in-depth analysis coupled with effective dissemination, particularly from regional scholars,” Wiesner said. “The Corporation’s support to the region’s knowledge sector aims to empower local institutions and communities — ultimately to improve outcomes and conditions in the region. We see political science and social sciences expanding significantly, thanks to professional organizations such as the Arab Council for the Social Sciences.”

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Another such initiative is Alternative Policy Solutions (APS), a project based at The American University in Cairo, which produces evidence-based, participatory, and actionable policy research in the areas of socioeconomic reform, resource management, and public services. Sophisticated multisectoral research, undertaken mostly by Arab scholars in cooperation with their international colleagues, is helping us unravel the critical underpinnings of mass Arab poverty and inequality as well as the political turbulence they inevitably trigger. One of the most important research outcomes lays bare poverty’s connection to other debilitating conditions that stun tens of millions of marginalized families — often for generations to come. These include poor education, informal labor, weak state social services and social protection systems, environmental stresses, and populations that grow faster than economies.

For example, analyses of international test scores show that around half of all mid-primary and mid-secondary school students in Arab public schools do not meet basic learning outcomes in reading, writing, and mathematics. These students often drop out of school or graduate without being able to find productive work commensurate to their education, which helps explain why nearly 60 percent of Arab labor today is in the informal sector. Such workers enjoy no protections like minimum wage, maximum working hours, health insurance, or pension plans (only around 30 percent of Arab workers have pension plans). The poor education/labor informality cycle guarantees continued poverty and vulnerability for generations to come for two reasons. First, Arab governments and economies are unable to generate enough new decent jobs to reduce unemployment. New entrants to the labor market have nowhere to go. The International Monetary Fund and other organizations estimate that the Arab region must create 60 to 100 million jobs by 2030, and 27 million of those in the next five years, to make a significant dent in unemployment. For economic managers in the Arab region today, whether in the private or the public sector, this is clearly an impossible task — especially since regional economic trends, including the creation of new jobs, can be influenced by such factors as erratic performances in tourism, direct foreign investment, worker remittances, commercial trade, energy prices, and foreign aid. Second, low household education levels and poor early childhood development indicators, such as the increasingly common incidence of stunting, are signs that families will continue to suffer long-term poverty and marginalization.

Populations also continue to grow faster than the economic expansion required to meet people’s basic needs for jobs and social services. Reversing decades-old trends, fertility rates have recently risen in a few countries, translating into an estimated annual nine million births in the Arab region (nearly two million of those in Egypt alone). Many of these children will face hard life prospects, given the inability of current state policies to meet the needs of their populations, let alone the millions more people being born every year.

Poverty and inequality send tens of millions of politically powerless individuals down a one-way path to vulnerability, marginalization, helplessness, and hopelessness. That is the ultimate devastation. As a result, millions of them become alienated from their governments, which no longer provide the basic services and opportunities that they had once delivered with some sustained success. Instead, many find not only succor but essential services in established religious, ethnic, tribal, political, and professional organizations that have grown to play a more and more prominent role in state and society, often edging out government as the main animating force in how individuals interact with their state. National coherence and integrity start to fray, and powerful nonstate actors expand and come to share sovereignty with the state, whether formally like Hezbollah and Hamas, or informally like Muslim Brotherhood groups and local sectarian and tribal organizations in Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia. A few individuals consider the option of joining militant groups challenging the state and its established order through violence. Some families risk illegal migration abroad, with thousands perishing alongthe way — all because the risk of staying and possibly dying at home is greater than the risk of fleeing to find a new life.

Such life trajectories are the most dramatic and tragic consequence resulting from the expansion of poverty and inequality, which have now reached crisis proportions in many Arab countries. Yet, this situation still lacks the attention it deserves, and several hundred million poor and vulnerable Arabs are waiting on remedial policies as they struggle to make ends meet or to — merely — stay alive in their ever-more turbulent societies.

* According to ESCWA economists who have analyzed the issue, the middle class in non-oil producing Arab countries has shrunk from 45 percent to 33 percent of the population.
** Comparatively, the top 10 percent of the population accounts for 37 percent of the wealth in western Europe and 47 percent in the United States. SeeFacundo Alvaredo, Lydia Assouad, and Thomas Piketty, “Measuring Inequality in the Middle East 1990–2016: The World’s Most Unequal Region?,” Review of Income and Wealth (October 2018).

FAQs

What are the inequalities in the Middle East? ›

The Middle East is the most unequal region worldwide: 56% of national income accrues to the top 10%, and only 12% goes to the bottom 50%.

Why is there so much poverty in the Middle East? ›

The poor education/labor informality cycle guarantees continued poverty and vulnerability for generations to come for two reasons. First, Arab governments and economies are unable to generate enough new decent jobs to reduce unemployment.

Why is there inequality in the Middle East? ›

The extreme inequality in the region is due, first, to enormous income differences between oil-rich and population-rich countries. For example, in 2016 the Gulf States represented only 15 percent of the total population of the region but received almost half of total regional income.

What are the three main causes of inequality? ›

  • A Poverty and lack of resources.
  • B Treating others without any dignity.
  • C Discrimination on the basis of caste and gender. Poverty and social discrimination are the main reasons for inequality. Poverty would lead to denial of access to the resources.

What are 3 common economic problems in the Middle East? ›

MENA countries continue to face numerous long-term socio-economic and institutional challenges including high unemployment (especially youth unemployment), low female labour-market participation rates, the poor quality of education, costly and ineffective public sectors, high military and security spending, high energy ...

Does poverty exist in the Middle East? ›

Using the international poverty line of $1.90 a day, the percentage of the population living below the line is 17.1 percent in 2017. Using the lower middle-income poverty line, it is found that about two-fifths of the population lives below $3.20 a day.

What are the main challenges for economic development in Middle East? ›

The Middle East faces several major challenges in 2022, such as the fight against climate change and energy transition, as well as unfinished business such as democratisation and human rights, which remain unrespected in most Arab countries, where there has been limited progress since the 2011 uprisings, while economic ...

Why is the Middle East important to the economy? ›

Oil and natural gas are the twin engines that power the Middle East's economy. The region is home to 53 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and nearly half of all known natural gas reserves.

What are the biggest causes of inequality? ›

Key factors
  • unemployment or having a poor quality (i.e. low paid or precarious) job as this limits access to a decent income and cuts people off from social networks;
  • low levels of education and skills because this limits people's ability to access decent jobs to develop themselves and participate fully in society;

What is the main conflict in the Middle East? ›

Background. The unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is one of the key fields of conflict in the Middle East. At the root of the conflict are rival claims to the area between Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Is there gender inequality in Middle East? ›

While gender inequality is an unfortunate global reality, the Arab region faces not only the greatest gap, but also significant challenges in redressing this inequality.

What are the causes of inequality? ›

Inequalities are not only driven and measured by income, but are determined by other factors - gender, age, origin, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, class, and religion. These factors determine inequalities of opportunity which continue to persist, within and between countries.

How does inequality affect our lives? ›

Inequality leads to a societal breakdown in trust, solidarity and social cohesion, it reduces people's willingness to act for the common good.

Why is inequality a problem for society? ›

Inequality is a drag on economic growth and fosters political dysfunction, experts say. Concentrated income and wealth reduces the level of demand in the economy because rich households tend to spend less of their income than poorer ones. Reduced opportunities for low-income households can also hurt the economy.

What are the causes of poverty and inequality? ›

11 Top Causes of Global Poverty
  • INEQUALITY AND MARGINALIZATION. ...
  • CONFLICT. ...
  • HUNGER, MALNUTRITION, AND STUNTING. ...
  • POOR HEALTHCARE SYSTEMS — ESPECIALLY FOR MOTHERS AND CHILDREN. ...
  • LITTLE OR NO ACCESS TO CLEAN WATER, SANITATION, AND HYGIENE. ...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE. ...
  • LACK OF EDUCATION. ...
  • POOR PUBLIC WORKS AND INFRASTRUCTURE.
4 Mar 2020

What is relationship between poverty and inequality? ›

Poverty is related to, yet distinct from, inequality (Haughton & Khandker, 2009). Inequality is concerned with the full distribution of well-being; poverty is focused on the lower end of the distribution only – those who fall below a poverty line (McKay, 2002).

What are the biggest conflicts in the Middle East? ›

Current conflicts in the Middle East
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of the longest ongoing conflicts. ...
  • Other long term conflict zones are Afghanistan, the Caucasus, the Horn of Africa, and Sudan.
  • The region is home to two of the wars with the most international participants: Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

What are some social problems in the Middle East? ›

Social issues like the fights for women's rights, the increasing need for employment, and Arab Spring demonstrations (political demonstrations held with the goal of overthrowing or dismantling corrupt governments). Economic issues such as the declining price of oil commodities and controversy in OPEC members.

What are the effects of conflict in the Middle East? ›

It affects their daily life, their ability to secure their basic needs, and their ability to find suitable employment according to their skills and knowledge. War destroys social and family links, and ruptures the connections between different subgroups that form the fabric of society.

Which Middle Eastern country has the most poverty? ›

Yemen has long been the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and is now in the midst of one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. The fighting that has been raging since early 2015 has devastated its economy, leading to severe food insecurity and destroying critical infrastructure.

Why Arab countries are not developed? ›

Along with money, there are other aspects too like education and other social aspects like individual freedom, democracy, gender equality which are not available in those countries.

What is the main source of income for Middle Eastern countries? ›

The region is best known for oil production and export, which significantly impacts the entire region through the wealth it generates and through labor utilization. In recent years, many of the countries in the region have undertaken efforts to diversify their economies.

What are the two biggest environmental issues in the Middle East? ›

Given its geographic location and arid climate conditions, the Middle East is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate stresses, especially rising temperatures and water scarcity.

What are the main issues that are faced by countries in low and middle income countries? ›

In short, the LMICs are facing social, economic, environmental, human capital, political, and infrastructure issues that directly or indirectly affecting the health and pharmaceutical health services.

What is the main importance of the Middle East for the world? ›

Today the Middle East's strategic location as a tricontinental hub, its vast petroleum reserves, its importance to Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike, and its many political disputes give it a global significance out of proportion to its size.

What is the Middle East most known for? ›

The Middle East is known in the west for its food, as a center of religion, and for its often troubled recent history. But it is also known for its history of innovation in philosophy, mathematics and literature, and science — which has given us many items, concepts, and institutions that we now use all the time.

Why is the Middle East region so important? ›

Though the Middle East accounts for just 4 percent of global GDP, the region carries an outsize importance in the world economy given its abundance of two natural resources: oil and natural gas. These resources power cars, supply electricity to cities, and fuel freighters that ship goods around the world.

How poverty has affected our society? ›

Issues like hunger, illness, and poor sanitation are all causes and effects of poverty. That is to say, that not having food means being poor, but being poor also means being unable to afford food or clean water.

How does poverty affect your daily life? ›

Poor infrastructures, unemployment, lack of basic services and income reflect on their lack of education, malnutrition, violence at home and outside, child labor, diseases of all kinds, transmitted by the family or through the environment.

What are the two main religions in conflict in the Middle East? ›

Throughout history the Middle East has been burdened with religious conflict. There has been conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims over the rightful religious leader of Islam, known as the caliph. On one side of this conflict are the Shiite who wanted to see Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, as caliph.

What was the first conflict in the Middle East? ›

Americans — including my father — fought the Nazis in North Africa in World War II, but the first combat operation in the Middle East proper did not come until July 18, 1958, when President Dwight Eisenhower sent Marines ashore in Beirut, Lebanon. Operation Blue Bat was prompted by a coup, not in Lebanon but in Iraq.

How did the Middle East conflict begin? ›

In 1967, Israel simultaneously attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan in a pre-emptive strike against the Arab troops along its borders. Israel captured key pieces of land, such as the strategic Golan Heights to the north on the border with Syria, to the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza strip from Egypt.

How do you solve gender inequality? ›

Learn more about us.
  1. Talk to women and girls. ...
  2. Let girls use mobile phones. ...
  3. Stop child marriage and sexual harassment. ...
  4. Make education gender sensitive. ...
  5. Raise aspirations of girls and their parents. ...
  6. Empower mothers. ...
  7. Give proper value to 'women's work' ...
  8. Get women into power.

What are the 3 main areas of gender inequality in the world? ›

This index, called the Gender Inequality Index, measures inequalities in three dimensions: reproductive health (based on maternal mortality ratio and adolescent birth rates); empowerment (based on proportion of parliamentary seats occupied by females and proportion of adult females aged 25 years and older with at least ...

What is the most gender equal country in the Middle East? ›

The UAE remains the most gender-equal country in the Arab World in 2022, thanks to an increase in the share of women in technical roles as well as for closing the gender gaps in primary education, according to Global Gender Gap Report 2022 released by World Economic Forum on Wednesday.

What are the 3 types of inequality? ›

Related concepts are lifetime Inequality (inequality in incomes for an individual over his or her lifetime), Inequality of Wealth (distribution of wealth across households or individuals at a moment in time), and Inequality of Opportunity (impact on income of circumstances over which individuals have no control, such ...

What are the main types of inequality? ›

Five types of inequality
  • political inequality;
  • differing life outcomes;
  • inequality of opportunity;
  • treatment and responsibility;
  • shared equality of membership in the areas of nation, faith and family.
10 Dec 2008

What are the 4 types of inequality? ›

There are five systems or types of social inequality: wealth inequality, treatment and responsibility inequality, political inequality, life inequality, and membership inequality.

Why is inequality so important? ›

Inequality is important to poverty because the relative position of individuals or households in society is considered an important aspect of their welfare (Coudouel et al., 2002).

Why is it important to reduce inequality in society? ›

Inequality threatens long- term social and economic development, harms pov- erty reduction and destroys people's sense of fulfilment and self-worth. This, in turn, can breed crime, disease and environmental degradation.

How does inequality affect the economy? ›

At low-income levels, inequality tends to boost economic growth by increasing physical capital investment. As income levels increase, human capital becomes more important than physical capital, and inequality tends to impede economic growth by affecting human capital accumulation.

What are the main conflicts in the Middle East? ›

The Middle East is in turmoil, with civil wars raging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed last year alone, and the number of children forced to fight as soldiers has doubled.

What are some current issues in the Middle East? ›

10 challenges facing the Middle East region in 2022
  • Fighting climate change.
  • Falling indicators.
  • The difficult post-pandemic recovery.
  • The Lebanese economic crisis.
1 Jan 2022

What are the 5 social inequalities? ›

There are five systems or types of social inequality: wealth inequality, treatment and responsibility inequality, political inequality, life inequality, and membership inequality.

What are the 2 biggest environmental issues dealt with in the Middle East? ›

Given its geographic location and arid climate conditions, the Middle East is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate stresses, especially rising temperatures and water scarcity.

What are three environmental issues in the Middle East? ›

The region uses much more water than what is replenished; the changing climate exacerbates water stress, undermines agricultural production, and threatens human health; marine ecosystems are plagued by overfishing and pollution; land degradation reduces biodiversity and contributes to extensive dust storms.

What are two main environmental issues in the Middle East? ›

According to him there are five main environmental challenges facing the Middle East: water security, energy security, food security, land degradation, and desertification; all are closely related to both regional stability and security.

When did the Middle East conflict start? ›

In 1967, Israel simultaneously attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan in a pre-emptive strike against the Arab troops along its borders. Israel captured key pieces of land, such as the strategic Golan Heights to the north on the border with Syria, to the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza strip from Egypt.

What is the impact of inequality in our society? ›

Trust, Participation, Attitudes and Happiness

Inequality affects how you see those around you and your level of happiness. People in less equal societies are less likely to trust each other, less likely to engage in social or civic participation, and less likely to say they're happy.

What is the main cause of social inequality? ›

The causes of social inequality include society's acceptance of roles, stereotyping, social organization by class (or class systems) and economic disparity, as well as legislation and political inequality.

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