Blog June 17, 2024

How to Respond to Inequalities in a Crises-Packed Arab Region?

By Fernando Marani
Front page of How to Respond to Inequalities in a Crises-Packed Arab Region?
  • Inequality and Exclusion

Strolling through Cairo to attend the Third Arab Forum for Equality is nothing short of electrifying. The streets pulse with the energy of vibrant youth, bustling businesses, and an unmistakable dynamism. This is a defining feature of Egypt and the entire Arab world. Yet, beneath this lively surface lurks a burgeoning destabilizing challenge: inequality.

The crisis of inequality in the Arab region

In fact, the Arab region stands out as the most unequal in the world, when measured by income inequality alone, grappling with long-standing and severe disparities in wealth and opportunities. A recent report by United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA) and Pathfinders for Peace, Just and Inclusive Societies highlights these persistent inequalities, showing that the richest 10 percent in the Arab world hold 44 times more wealth than the poorest 40 percent. Poverty is also rising, with around 150 million people affected, 85 million of whom live in extreme poverty.

Educational inequality and relatedly, youth unemployment, is another critical issue for the region. Despite investments and reforms since 2015 have reduced inequality in access to education, significant access gaps persist—particularly in low-income and conflict-affected countries. Quality education is essential for social mobility, yet many Arab youths end up finding that their qualifications do not necessarily lead to jobs. According to data from 2021, the average youth unemployment rate in the region was 26.8 percent, while globally it was 15.9 percent. This mismatch exacerbates economic inequalities and perpetuates cycles of poverty.

Crisis upon crisis

Like many other parts of the world, the Arab region faces a tangled web of complex and interrelated crises, creating what’s now increasingly being called a polycrisis—defined as interconnected risks that combine to create a crisis even worse than the sum of its parts. For instance, since COVID-19 (a significant health and economic crisis on its own), the region has been battered by earthquakes, floods, soaring food prices, debt distress, institutional instability, and conflicts. These challenges have worsened existing issues such as drought, water scarcity, and hyperinflation which has continued to erode the fabric of societies and economies, while deepening poverty and widening inequality. People living in poverty, young people, and women are hit hardest and left further behind. 

Many of these crises were imported from other regions, but have deeply impacted Arab countries, especially in their ability to address multidimensional inequalities. For example, the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine disrupted food supply chains, driving up prices and increasing even more the risk of food insecurity in some countries in the region. Similarly, the geopolitical tensions between the United States and China complicate intraregional solidarity and the implementation of comprehensive solutions to these challenges.

An inclusive space for meaningful dialogue 

In response, the Third Arab Forum for Equality, co-hosted by UNESCWA, Pathfinders, the International Monteary Fund (IMF)’s Middle East Regional Technical Assistance Center -(METAC), and the Sawiris Foundation, was convened in Cairo on June 4–5, 2024 to discuss strategies to combat inequality in the context of multiple crises. The forum brought together experts, policymakers, and representatives from the private sector, academia, and civil society. 

With well-curated thematic sessions and the participation of high-level officials from Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and more, the third edition confirmed its convening power and solution-oriented approach. The message was clear from the outset: during the opening, Rola Dashti, Executive Secretary of UNESCWA, underscored the need for more urgent and collaborative action to tackle inequality and build resilience in the Arab region.

Proactive planning and resilience-building 

The forum highlighted the urgent need to acknowledge that the frequency and extent of crises will continue to grow, demanding that governments be better prepared to tackle multiple crises simultaneously. While foreseeable, crises often catch governments unprepared due to short-term priorities. Therefore, there is a pressing need for proactive planning, as more crises are anticipated. Identifying and implementing effective solutions while enhancing regional and international synergy is essential, given the existing disparities within the Arab region.

At the national level, designing comprehensive risk management systems and increasing societal resilience are critical steps forward. This approach requires engaging a broad range of stakeholders, including the private sector, academia, and civil society, fostering a collaborative environment driven by evidence-based research and accountability. To respond to the threat of polycrises, governments must deliver well-designed and executed emergency response plans, coupled with agile and clear strategies for implementation.

A call was made to revitalize the social contract, moving beyond business as usual, and rethinking how we assess current challenges. Addressing identity politics, driven by marginalization and exclusion, was deemed essential, as it directly impacts social cohesion and stability. It was acknowledged on several occasions that stronger social protection policies are needed to support more vulnerable and marginalized populations, including those displaced, minorities, and youth.

For young people, showcasing success stories can inspire future generations by highlighting personal achievements and impactful policies. Ensuring women’s participation in the labor force and recognizing the potential of young women as catalysts for positive change were also key points. Efficient spending and education reform centered on learning are vital. Better data and measurement systems are needed, it was stated, including more comprehensive well-being indicators and better measurement of inequality under SDG10, and going beyond gross domestic product (GDP). 

The forum further recognized the role of the private sector in fostering social and economic inclusion. The relationship between the market and the state should be seen as complementary rather than adversarial. Participants also called for more interregional solidarity and economic integration in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to tackle the polycrisis.

Participants urged the international community, including the United Nations (UN) and the international financial institutions (IFIs), to develop a deeper understanding of the unique regional and national contexts within which these crises occur. They urged robust support for governments to better serve their populations. Key recommendations included improving international tax cooperation, reforming credit rating agencies, and addressing illicit financial flows to provide governments with additional tools and the fiscal space needed to tackle inequality effectively. 

Driving towards a more equitable world

Even a few days in Cairo demonstrates that the Arab region buzzes with vibrant energy, ready to be harnessed for progress and development. Crisis preparedness and people-centered policymaking aren’t just paths to economic stability, but a means to unlock the immense potential of the region’s population, particularly its young people. 

The intertwining crises in the Arab region underscores the urgent need for coordinated, innovative, and inclusive policy responses to inequality. A key resource in this effort is the Inequality Solutions portal, a rich resource of global policies—available in English and Arabic— which drive progress towards a more equitable and inclusive society. 

The Third Arab Forum for Equality has laid the groundwork, but it is up to all of us— policymakers in governments, international organizations, civil society, and the private sector—to turn rhetoric into action. By implementing the forum’s recommendations, we can pave the way for a more resilient and equitable future, ensuring the people of Cairo, and the Arab region continue to thrive and succeed in an increasingly uncertain world. 

Related Resources

UNESCWA: Inequality in the Arab Region: Crisis Upon Crisis