The Educated Middle Class, their Economic Prospects, and the Arab Spring
The recent uprisings in the Arab World carry a broader lesson, highlighting the importance of sustaining an economy that provides sufficient job opportunities for an increasingly educated and skilled middle class.
Since late 2010, the world has witnessed a remarkable groundswell of political change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and other Arab countries. It has already swept aside several regimes once thought unassailable, while shaking up the existing political order in others. This wave of change – popularly referred to as the “Arab Spring” – has certainly prompted much thinking. What were the sources of underlying discontent in these states? Why were these movements able to gain sufficient traction within the span of a few weeks, leading ultimately to the overthrow of strongmen who had ruled for decades? These are deep questions that have absorbed the attention of policy practitioners and academics alike, who have sought to extract broader lessons from the Arab Spring to better understand the underpinnings of regime stability
Those who are interested in these questions could do worse than read a recently published book entitled “Revolution 2.0”, by the Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim.1 In this autobiographical account, Ghonim describes in extraordinary detail the role that he and other activists played in organizing the massive street protests that eventually triggered the downfall of Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak. In doing so, Ghonim vividly brings to life several elements that have drawn attention in the ongoing effort to make sense of the Arab Spring, such as the background of the leading activists who featured so prominently in rallying the public to the streets. These were young, tech-savvy individuals adept in their use of social media, who often had prior exposure to living and working abroad. These factors certainly played a pivotal role in enabling the street protests to gain such momentum and energy in a short span of time.
Economic opportunities and the skilled middle class
The attentive reader of the book will nevertheless notice the unmistakable manifestations of deeper structural forces that were well in place before the start of the Arab Spring, and to which we have sought to draw attention in our own work. In a particularly telling passage, Wael Ghonim tells us about his father, who spent almost all of his working life as a doctor in Saudi Arabia, in spite of the extended separation from his family, in large part because his salary was apparently twenty times the amount he would have received had he kept working in a public hospital back home in Egypt. As it turns out, Ghonim’s father was not an isolated case. Research on how immigrants in the United States have fared suggests that skilled workers from several of the countries most affected by the Arab Spring (such as Egypt and Yemen) did indeed command substantial wage premiums from working in the US labor market when compared against similarly skilled workers who remained in their home countries – up to ten times as high, which is in fact quite above the average premium for skilled immigrants from other countries.2 On top of this systematic evidence, one can add further anecdotes such as the widespread belief (since found to be incorrect) that Mohamed Bouazizi – the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation marked the birth of the Arab Spring – was a disgruntled university graduate.3 Putting these pieces together, one has a clear indication of the inability of many Arab states to provide sufficient economic opportunities to meet the aspirations of an increasingly educated populace.