12 Jan 2021

Covid-19 and the youth unemployment challenge for Iraq and Lebanon

Amal Al Breiki

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has caused global economic and health shocks, the youth will likely bear most of its ramifications. The impact is likely to worsen in Iraq and Lebanon, countries already plagued by systemic, political, and social challenges. Rampant corruption and persistent violence exacerbate the youth’s problems in these countries who are already battling a high unemployment rate. In most such cases, the quest for a better life goes alongside the demand for a political change.

With the implementation of lockdown measures, most sectors of the Middle East economy had to shut down. Informal economic sectors suffered a major setback, and cash-strapped governments struggled to allocate resources to safeguard the people from a rampant pandemic. It couldn’t have come at a worse time for the youth looking for better opportunities and upward mobility. In describing the pandemic as “the worst global crisis since World War II,”[1] the International Labor Organization (ILO) predicted that the youth would suffer severely in the absence of social or financial security.

Youth, defined by the United Nations as “those between the ages of 15 and 24 years,”[2] make up half of the Arab world’s population. The region’s young generation is its future lifeline and the primary driver of sustainable development. A handful of Arab governments have been actively championing the youth and making space for them on decision-making platforms.

More than any other Arab country, Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE have made significant youth engagement and inclusion efforts. Their achievement is evident in the historically high literacy rates among young Arabs, that has doubled since the 1970s. The youth unemployment rate is as low as 5.3 percent in Bahrain and 7.5 percent in the UAE (World Bank, 2020).

However, persistent unemployment trends elsewhere in the Arab world remain a challenge to its bulging youth population, reaching a global high in 2018. As of 2020, Libya has the highest unemployment rate at 50.9 percent,[3] followed by the West Bank and Gaza. With the impact of Covid-19, unemployment rates in these countries are only expected to increase. Hence, the youths’ future is a question that bears asking.

This insight explores the complicating factors that play a part in youth employability, in addition to tackling the shape of the post-Covid-19 world for Iraqi and Lebanese youth. In both cases, the commonalities of the problems faced – such as a profoundly sectarian polity – are striking, although each should be considered differently.

The unemployment status quo

The 2017 Arab Youth Survey[4] revealed unemployment as the biggest obstacle facing the region, which continues to be the case in 2020.[5] Unemployment rates in the Arab region were higher than the global average[6] even before the pandemic. According to the World Bank, Iraq has the world’s youngest population and a youth unemployment rate of 25.2 percent as of 2020.[7] Trading Economics data suggest unemployment rate in Iraq remained unchanged at 7.90 percent in 2019 from 7.90 percent in 2018.

This is increasingly frustrating the youth, arguably leading to growing grassroots protests by young Iraqis. The Arab Youth Survey of 2020 revealed that 82 percent thought anti-government protest would result in positive change. So, there is an element of hope, even as Iraq has a surplus of job demands from employable individuals, and the supply is almost always minimal.[8]

Lebanon’s youth unemployment rate totals 17.8 percent (World Bank, 2020). The recent economic collapse has exacerbated its unemployment scene, and the government is barely pulling through. As job creation has been brought to a halt, simultaneously, the country’s infrastructure deteriorates, increasing the risk of Lebanese youth seeking alternatives. Joining radical groups such as Hezbollah grants them secure income, free education, healthcare, or leaving to seek opportunities abroad.[9]

Besides the divisive political underbelly, many complicating factors have played a role in Iraq and Lebanon’s systemic unemployment. It is exacerbated by a global pandemic, showcasing chronic cases of institutionalized incompetence at all levels. However, irrespective of the countries’ embedded sectarian structure, the Iraqi and Lebanese governments share underlying issues. They are deeply entangled and also go far beyond it.

Terror and corruption-unemployment nexus in Iraq

Iraq’s infrastructure has not made a full recovery since the Saddam regime’s downfall in 2003. A failure to create jobs and a lack of private sector growth, accentuated by terror outfit ISIS’s insurgency since 2014, have further contributed to the country’s deteriorating socio-economic state. Iraq’s economic status and systemic corruption have meant it has been unable to escape the long years of destructive conflict altogether.

The oil industry is pivotal to Iraq’s survival, as the government has not sought to diversify nor stimulate its non-oil economy adequately. Subsequently, the recent collapse in oil prices worsened an already damaged economy and paralyzed its infrastructural reforms.[10]

Moreover, ISIS’s occupation of 40 percent of Iraqi territories[11] in 2015 was highly detrimental for youth employability prospects and their socio-economic inclusion. The group tactically utilized social media platforms that appealed to the youth and targeted their vulnerabilities.

According to Speckhard and Ellenberg (2020), unemployment and poverty were two of the most common factors that drove youth to join ISIS frontlines.[12] The sentiment shared by those who joined ISIS were those of disenfranchisement from their society and leadership that had profoundly failed them. As ISIS dominated the labor market in each area they conquered, they played on the youths’ marginalization, making it impossible to get a job outside of their controlled areas.

Additionally, the recent US withdrawal might further obstruct Iraq’s socio-economic trajectory. With the coalition’s help, Iraq is at last free of the ISIS threat, but a US withdrawal might leave an opportunity for terrorists to reassemble and start new operations. These pronounced risks have shifted the government’s priorities from essential structural reforms in electricity, healthcare, education, and unemployment to security concerns, thereby triggering nationwide protests by Iraq’s youth. These protests have been aggravated by festering resentment during the long years of ISIS’s destructive campaign, embedded corruption, and government mismanagement.

Moreover, the war against ISIS left behind more than 4.2 million displaced Iraqis, 27 percent unemployed and deprived of proper education. As of 2016, Iraq has designated 6 percent[13] of its national budget for education. However, going by the current education system’s track record, much of these funds might have been misappropriated. A neglected education system and a steady economic decline add to Iraqi youths’ growing sense of desperation.

Besides destabilizing political circumstances, Iraq’s endemic corruption is also causing severe frustration among its youth. A UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report on the public sector found sectarian, political, and family affiliations the most reliable ways to find government jobs. According to Transparency International, clientelism, nepotism, and cronyism are devastatingly common in Iraq’s parliament.[14] The high probability of spilling over into the public sector, systematic sectarianism, and corruption are also evident, compounded by unqualified government officials.

Administrative corruption continues to prevail in every aspect of Iraq’s society, displayed in the extraction of bribes through job recruitment in the public sector and security institutions in exchange for various government services. Considering that a large percent of Iraq’s population lives in extreme poverty, the manifestations of corruption are also a form of discrimination that denies the general public their fundamental rights.

Unless the new transitional government creates an integrity-driven environment that leads to economic transformation, a rise in youth unemployment will encourage the youth in Iraq to find radical alternatives or lead to an inevitable brain drain.

Battling hyperinflation in Lebanon

 Given recent setbacks, Lebanon’s failing economic status might no longer be salvageable and will further devalue the currency. Thousands have lost their jobs with dramatic salary cuts.[15] A 35 percent increase in the unemployment rate[16] also threatens Lebanese youths’ future. Amid hyperinflation, banks restricting withdrawals of cash in dollars or Lebanese pounds, citizens resort to the black market for cash, food, and necessities.[17] The electricity and water crisis limits access to sufficient power, with blackouts occurring daily.

According to the latest figures, 55 percent of the population in Lebanon live below the poverty line,[18] compared to 28 percent in 2019. The impact on the country’s socio-economic classes suggests a harrowing outcome of Lebanon’s middle class being wiped out.[19]

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has approached the Lebanese government even as protestors express concerns over any assistance to the current administration, suggesting it would only bailout its elite.[20] In parallel, the country’s political oligarchs in its quarrel with Lebanon’s private banking sector have been actively sabotaging discussions with the Fund.[21] Albeit still holding up their offer, the IMF is placed in a tight position[22] uncertain to what extent the current Lebanese government is willing to commit to reforms despite its initial pleas to the organization.

Lebanon’s debt and spending are not reflected on its infrastructure, which has remained deficient since the civil war, putting the younger generation’s burden to stomach the fallout and reconstruct it. Lebanon has been in a constant state of push-and-pull with Iran and Israel, and other foreign powers. The country’s geopolitics has become more complicated recently, with Iran-backed militia and Israel exchanging retaliatory attacks in Syria and the Lebanese-Israeli border.[23] The assassination of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps leader, Qassem Soleimani, has impacted Lebanon in the form of a series of threats from Hezbollah’s secretary-general.

The country’s frail political status quo is also impeding structural reforms. The political tit-for-tat has deflected the government’s prime concerns from the needs of the population. However, Lebanon’s problematic politics is deep-rooted within its history. Its sectarian political system[24] has allowed elites to leech off the country’s resources with virtually complete impunity.[25] Moreover, the government has been in a gridlock of resignations forced by street anger, to the extent that a protest led to barricading legislators from holding a session in November 2019.[26]

Consequently, the government cannot provide the population with essential public services; the most evident example is an uninterrupted electricity supply.[27] While the dark is engulfing the rest of Lebanon, the affluent neighborhoods where the country’s elite reside is brighter than ever. An added issue young Lebanese job seekers face amid an economic crisis is the lack of alignment[28] between the market’s demands and the existing programs taught in universities – a failure to utilize youths’ skills and education to serve and contribute to the economy. Like Iraq, Lebanese youth tend to resort to low-paid jobs that lack stability, potential growth, and career mobility.

An inherent discrepancy in job opportunities for the youth in a sect-oriented Lebanon is also a typical pattern found in Iraq’s government institutions that operates on sectarian-based quotas (Collard, 2019). The prevalence of clientelism is making society’s needs subject to a transactional relationship. As a result, protests have intensified against the systemic corruption in Lebanon’s institutions. The expression – Kelun Yani Kelun (all of them means all of them) – serves as a rallying cry.

Iraq and Lebanon’s youth populations have been subjected to social unrest and political turmoil for decades, compounded by inefficient governance, inadequate education systems, and mismatched market demands. Moreover, the culture of impunity that exists in both countries has enabled endemic corruption within public and private domains to burgeon. The Iraqi and Lebanese youth uprisings act as the potential catalysts of any progress in their respective countries; they remain the hidden key for their success.

 Ambiguous future of a post-pandemic world

The post-pandemic world remains uncertain, particularly for the region’s youth. Latest reports predict the loss of 1.7 million jobs in the region,[29] affecting every sector and escalating the pre-existing unemployment crisis. Given the weak economic foundations of Iraq and Lebanon, Covid-19 closure measures have abated any chances of creating quality jobs.

The dramatic decrease in oil revenues and trade might have been anticipated, but the consequences appear insurmountable. A United National Development Program (UNDP) report on the impact of Covid-19 on Iraq’s economy, released in October 2020, projected the country’s GDP to witness a 10 percent decrease, swelling the country’s fiscal deficit by 30 percent.[30]

SMEs in the retail, food, and manufacturing sectors were hit the most. An ILO report on the impact of Covid-19 on SMEs and the vulnerable in Iraq found that a quarter of the sample surveyed have lost their jobs, with young workers composing 36 percent of the layoffs.[31] Those young workers were responsible for entire household members, who are now barely staying afloat.

Lebanon’s case is much more complicated. The country has endured an economic collapse, power-hungry politicians, a pandemic and, recently, a calamitous explosion costing the country USD 15 billion.[32] The Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs reports that the country’s GDP will fall by 15 percent post-Covid-19, while unemployment and poverty rates are expected to double.[33] The desperate pleas of young Lebanese are reaching a breaking point with suicide rates on the rise.[34]

With an already broken education system, the transition to remote learning and working has been problematic for both Iraq and Lebanon. The situation suggests an absence of technological advancement even though the younger generations are known to be tech-savvies. Yet, the lack of technological infostructure in the two countries will only impair their youth’s employability in a nearly digitalized world.

The Arab Youth Survey (2020) suggests that over two-thirds of young Lebanese (77 percent) are the most likely to migrate or have considered migrating, while young Iraqis came forth with 65 percent. Not surprisingly, these countries are at the risk of losing their brightest and the most driven segment of their population. Caught between a rock and a hard place, a large number of the youths have to make the inevitable choice of leaving their homes and their families behind for better opportunities.

Youth unemployment will not recede unless governments develop greater financial capacity and economic strength. Clientelism, nepotism, and cronyism, which disrupt the socio-economic system, are the main reasons behind the youth abandoning hope. Iraq and Lebanon’s governments must prioritize anti-corruption policies and adopt meritocracy, transparency, and accountability to address their systemic challenges. Policies to eliminate sectarian affiliation as the hiring criteria would be impactful.

The pandemic will inevitably have devastating reverberations on youth employability, leading to long-term security and socio-economic outcomes. In the meantime, Iraq and Lebanon governments should base their reforms on in-depth situation analysis and data-driven research of educational institutions and labor market demands. Formulating action plans, putting policies in place, and allocating sources, are vital steps toward addressing the challenges of a post-pandemic world for the youth. Lebanon and Iraq’s governments must invest in technology, quality education, and vocational training to take steps in this direction.


[1]France24. (April 1, 2020). UN chief says coronavirus worst global crisis since World War II. France24: https://bit.ly/2SQoWM7

[2]United Nations. (2020). Youth. United Nations: https://bit.ly/3ndh6ZI

[3]World Bank. (2020). Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate) – Middle East & North Africa. World Bank: https://bit.ly/3pSAjSy

[4]ASDAA. (2017). Arab Youth Survey: The Middle East A Region Divided. https://bit.ly/33WEXqw

[5]ASDAA. (2020) Arab Youth Survey: A Voice for Change. https://bit.ly/3lV2ON3

[6]ILO. (October 8, 2015). MENA Region Retain Highest Youth Unemployment Rate in the World. International Labour Organization: https://bit.ly/33UZjA5

[7]World Bank. (June 18, 2018). Jobs in Iraq: A Primer on Job Creation in the Short-term. World Bank: https://bit.ly/3iYnkdS

[8]UNODC. (January 2013). Corruption and Integrity Challenges in The Public Sector of Iraq: An Evidence-Based Study. UNODC: https://bit.ly/2FqS8q0

[9]Blanford, N. (2011). Joining Hezbollah. The Cairo Review of Global Affairs: https://bit.ly/351ST1M

[10]World Bank. (March 1, 2020). The World Bank in Iraq. World Bank: https://bit.ly/3k0wqIv

[11]Wilson Center. (October 28, 2019). Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State. Wilson Center: https://bit.ly/2SOWmLk

[12] Speckhard, A., & Ellenberg, M. (2020). ISIS in Their Own Words: Recruitment History, Motivations for Joining, Travel, Experiences in ISIS, and Disillusionment over Time – Analysis of 220 In-depth Interviews of ISIS Returnees, Defectors and Prisoners. Journal of Strategic Security, 13(1), 82-127. doi:10.5038/1944-0472.13.1.1791

[13]UNICEF. (n.d.). Iraq: Education. UNICEF: https://uni.cf/3lHH5Iy

[14]Agator, M. (April 2013). Iraq: overview of corruption and anti-corruption. U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center: https://bit.ly/3nMNcNy

[15]AFP. (November 29, 2019). Job losses and pay cuts as Lebanon’s economy crumbles. Arab News: https://bit.ly/2SSkb4N

[16]Cornish, C. (November 14, 2019). Lebanese youth voice anger at lack of opportunities. Financial Times: https://on.ft.com/3jXWy6V

[17]Noueihed, L., & Khraiche, D. (July 7, 2020). Lebanon’s Economic Crisis Is Spinning Out of Control, Fast. Bloomberg: https://bloom.bg/3lJDXvH

[18]UN ESCWA. (August 19, 2020). ESCWA warns: more than half of Lebanon’s population trapped in poverty. UN ESCWA: https://bit.ly/3nOExuc

[19]Naggar, M. (2013, January 7). Lebanon’s middle class steadily shrinking. Deutsche Welle: https://bit.ly/33YgDVc

[20]Blair, E. (September 17, 2020). Explainer: Lebanon’s financial meltdown and how it happened. Reuters: https://reut.rs/2Mrg0gi

[21]Bazzi, Z., & Hassan, N. (October 6, 2020). An IMF bailout for Lebanon can make things worse. Brettonwoods Project: https://bit.ly/3okvCjR

[22]IMF. (August 6, 2020). Statement by IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva on Lebanon. IMF: https://bit.ly/2SP8Anf

[23]Blandford, N., & Orion, A. (May 2020). COUNTING THE COST: Avoiding Another War between Israel and Hezbollah. Atlantic Council: https://bit.ly/33WkPob

[24]Collard, R. (December 14, 2019). How Sectarianism Helped Destroy Lebanon’s Economy. Foreign Policy: https://bit.ly/3nQXJrd

[25]Hof, F. (November 12, 2019). Revolution in Lebanon. Atlantic Council: https://bit.ly/3j3RsF2

[26]Balkiz, G., & Qiblawi, T. (November 19, 2019). Lebanon’s protesters shut parliament by blocking lawmakers. CNN: https://cnn.it/34ZPrV4

[27]Hatoum, L. (June 15, 2020). Why Lebanon’s electricity crisis is so hard to fix. Arab News: https://bit.ly/34UAWSC

[28]European Commission. (February 2017). Overview of the Higher Education System: Lebanon. European Commission: https://bit.ly/3iZfPn7

[29]UNESCWA. (March 18, 2020). At least 1.7 million jobs will be lost in the Arab region due to the coronavirus pandemic. UNESCWA: https://bit.ly/3dqdDUn

[30] UNDP. (Oct 7, 2020). Impact of Covid-19 on the Iraqi Economy. ReliefWeb: https://bit.ly/2Lm0P7V

[31]Kebede, T., S, S., & Kattaa, M. (2020, July). Rapid assessment of the impacts of Covid-19 on vulnerable populations and small-scale enterprises in Iraq. International Labour Organization (ILO): https://bit.ly/33YDCPX

[32]Mebtoul, T. (August 13, 2020). Beirut Explosion: Lebanon’s Losses Amount to $15 Billion. Morocco World News: https://bit.ly/2SSKfNg

[33] Abi-Rached, J., & Dlwan, I. (2020, June). The Socioeconomic Impact of COVID-19 on Lebanon: A Crisis Within Crises. Euromesco: https://bit.ly/3oLkXz7

[34]The Arab Weekly. (July 7, 2020). Suicide spike in Lebanon amid socio-economic turmoil. The Arab Weekly: https://bit.ly/2SUoQ6c

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Asma H A very interesting read! It was well-researched and easy to follow though.

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