Discontent in the Middle East

Middle East’s unemployed face frustration

Alisa Roth Feb 16, 2011
Discontent in the Middle East

Middle East’s unemployed face frustration

Alisa Roth Feb 16, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: The most serious of the protests in the Middle East today are happening in Bahrain. They started on Monday, mostly as a call for a release of political prisoners and more popular say in the government. Two days on, protesters say they’re marching for more jobs and better housing.

That’s the economic subtext of a lot of what’s been happening in the region the past month or so: Mostly educated young people who want work but can’t find it, or can’t make enough to live on. Marketplace’s Alisa Roth has more from Amman, Jordan.

Alisa Roth: It’s been five years since Hamzeh Naimi graduated from college — and he’s still looking for a real job. At this point, he’s not picky.

Hamzeh Naimi: Currently, I’m looking for any kind of job — like weeks, monthly, even day-by-day jobs.

He’s 26. Handsome, with dark hair and a neat beard. He has a degree in political science from Jordan University.

A couple of years ago, he went to Britain for a journalism job. It fell through, and he ended up working in a supermarket. He says God did smile on him, though: He met his wife there. But it’s hard living in Jordan.

Naimi: Sometimes, your wife asks you for something that you can’t bring to her or you can’t help buying it for her.

He can’t buy things for their new baby daughter either.

Naimi: I can’t describe that frustration that feeling that when you can say, “I’m sorry I don’t have.” But it’s, it’s really bad, you know?

It’s not just wanting to buy things: Since he’s the oldest son, the tradition is he should support his parents. Instead, they’re supporting him. Putting up Naimi, his wife and daughter. His younger brother and sister are still at home, too.

Naimi’s mother, Hada Sarhan, is a journalist. She’s angry at the system, at the government.

Hada Sarhan: Seeing your child that you’re born, and you have this bright future for him just sitting watching television and eating, doing nothing.

She’s not just angry. She’s anxious, because supporting her son and his family is eating away at her financial reserves.

Sarhan: I’m spending the money that I kept for in the future for me.

Roth: For your retirement.

Sarhan: For my retirement. You know, sometimes when I think about it, it makes me crazy.

There are lots of theories about why there aren’t any jobs in places like Jordan and Egypt: Systems that lock out people who aren’t well-connected, not enough government investment, too many college graduates. That last one is something Naimi’s little brother, Hani, thinks about a lot. He’s 21, and he’s about to graduate with a degree in engineering.

Hani: Sometimes while I’m studying like, I ask a question for myself like, “For what? For what? For not good opportunities after I finish?”

He’s already started applying for jobs. He’s gotten a couple of offers. The problem is none of them pays enough for him to contribute to the household in any meaningful way. And they certainly don’t pay enough for him to get married and move out.

Hani: I stopped thinking about what I dream of. I want to do something that I earn money from. I don’t care if I even enjoy it.

His mother says this kind of despair among young, educated people is ratcheting up the pressure for change.

Sarhan: Frankly, we are moving to the same road of Tunis and Egypt. Don’t tell me that anyone is secure.

Here in Amman today, there are calls for street protests. For the first time, they’ll be right outside one of the royal palaces.

Hamzeh Naimi would like to go. But this week, he’s trying out for a job at a newspaper. And he says he can’t risk losing an opportunity by taking time off to protest unemployment.

In Amman, Jordan, I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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