The Middle Eastern Marriage Crisis

Navtej Dhillon
Navtej Dhillon Former Brookings Expert

July 11, 2008

Editor’s Note: The Middle East Youth Initiative collaborates with NOW on PBS on a program documentary about youth employment in Jordan. In a special online supplement, NOW interviews Navtej Dhillon, Brookings Fellow and Director of the Middle East Youth Initiative, on the challenges facing youth across the Middle East—including unemployment and delayed marriage—and the role of the international community in contributing to reform and development in the region.

NOW: Why is marriage being delayed in the Middle East?

NAVTEJ DHILLON (ND): It used to be the case that a generation ago the majority of young people would have been married by their mid-20s. Today almost 50 percent of the men between the ages of 25 and 29 are not married. This delay is mostly involuntary and reflects the economic struggles of young people. Youth unemployment in the Middle East is quite high, around 25 percent compared to the world average of 14 percent. Those working often end up in the informal sector where wages are low. Some women are obviously staying longer in education and therefore some of them are also entering work life. By staying longer in education, they are marrying later and are probably likely to have fewer children. So there’s a positive side to this, in the sense that it frees women from early childbearing, and as well it expands their opportunities for education and work life.

NOW: What’s the downside to marrying later in life?

ND: I think it’s imposing new costs on society. It’s important to understand the significance of marriage in most Middle Eastern societies. The family is a cornerstone. Your rite of passage to adulthood is secured by marriage. And sexual relationships are only really approved and remain legitimate in the Middle East within the institution of marriage. This means that delayed marriage, as my colleague Diane Singerman from American University argues, can put a moratorium on intimate life, or force some young people into alternatives such as secret marriages which are a social anathema. Plus, young people end up being dependents on their parents for longer which is a financial burden on the family.

NOW: Many people might be surprised to hear that the Middle East has such high unemployment levels compared to the rest of the world. Why is this the case?

ND: I think there are three main reasons. First, labor markets in the Middle East have had to cope with a very fast influx of young men and women coming of working age. Second, economic systems have been less suited to accommodating these demographic pressures. Middle Eastern economies have been characterized by a large public sector and severe regulations which have curtailed private sector job creation. Finally, many young people are entering the labor market without a broad set of skills that the market wants.

NOW: So what happens to all these unemployed young people?

ND: Young people with less education end up working because they have no choice. The young people who are increasingly secondary and university educated end up in what I’ve been calling “waithood;” a long phase in which they wait for a full state of adulthood. Adulthood eludes them because they are deprived of the building blocks of adulthood: skills, jobs, housing, credit and spouses. Because difficulties in one area of life spill over into the others, youth find themselves in a debilitating state. Jobs require skills; housing and credit demand stable incomes; and marriage requires all of these.

NOW: Why can’t people just be unemployed and get married anyway?

ND: Because marriage dictates that a groom provides financial security. Plus, after marriage young people want to live on their own. They want to have a furnished apartment. They want to have all the things that they think that they should have, having spent all these years in education and it’s part of their aspiration.

NOW: The cost of a wedding, on average, in the Middle East is very high.

ND: Diane Singerman’s research has found that in Egypt, the average cost of a wedding is equivalent to about 43 months of the entire earnings of both the groom and his father. So the groom and the father have to save their entire earnings for almost four years in order afford the cost of marriage.

NOW: Once married, is there an expectation that the woman is going to stay home and take care of a child?

ND: I think that that actually is changing. When I was in Jordan a young man said, “It used to be the case that when they were looking at marriage, they would look for a girl who was pretty. Now they look for a girl who is working and who’s going to bring in some money.” I think that there is an increasing recognition that to become and to stay middle class, this generation is going to need not one paycheck, but two paychecks.

NOW: In a recent article in Newsweek, you classified the problems you are describing here as a “social time bomb.” What did you mean by that?

ND: Around 60 percent of the population in the Middle East is under 24 years of age. This presents the countries with a demographic gift—if tapped into by expanding educational and employment opportunities—that can usher a more prosperous Middle East. However, if squandered, the hopelessness among a large youthful population can drain economic development and social cohesion.

NOW: How have religious groups responded to this marriage crisis?

ND: Many of the religious groups, Islamic charities in Jordan, and in some of the parts of the Middle East are assisting young people with dowry systems or mass weddings, in order to reduce the cost of marriage.

NOW: Is there any downside to such group weddings?

ND: The only downside that I can think of is that many of these groups, to some extent, can have a political agenda. So, in a sense if we’re going to leave the space open for political groups to step in and provide assistance to young people, then we should not be surprised that it accompanies, also, with political mobilization. I don’t think that’s any different anywhere else in the world. This is how local politics works.

NOW: Why is this problem relevant to Americans?

I think it’s important, to some extent, because U.S. energy and U.S. oil comes from this part of the world. It is also a region in which we are facing some of the most destabilizing and some of the most horrendous conflicts, whether it’s the Arab-Israeli conflict, or Iraq. It’s a region that the U.S. is very much invested in terms of its own military, its foreign policy, and its national security.

NOW: Is there a risk element to the problem?

ND: I think there is. Of course there are national security concerns. Of course there are concerns to do with the radicalism. And we should be taking them on, and we should be fighting those. There’s no question about that. But we should not combine or conflate a strategy that is focused on fighting radicalism versus strategy that is helping to meet the aspiration of the majority, moderate citizens.

NOW: What do you think the U.S. should be doing to help?

ND: The U.S. can do a lot because it has one of the best records of harnessing youth energy. By providing greater foreign assistance as well as actively supporting more partnerships between U.S. and Middle Eastern education institutions and civil society organizations, we can make a real contribution to on-going reforms in the region. However, to date, U.S. engagement in the region has focused on defense and diplomacy. Not enough has been done to promote economic development. When the U.S. has focused on development, it has been in the context of the fight against terrorism. The reality is that most youth are involved in a different fight – a fight for better livelihoods.

NOW: We have the Presidential elections coming up in the U.S. Have the young people you spoke to in the region any thoughts about that?

ND: During a recent trip to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, I met several young men and women who showed interest in the upcoming U.S. elections. Many of these youth like their peers across the Middle East have come of age knowing only President George Bush, and the policies of the last eight years have had a very direct impact on their lives. Some youth expressed optimism that with a new administration there is an opportunity for greater dialogue and cooperation. Others remain pessimistic. The majority of them shared concerns at being misunderstood and often cast in a negative light. In a nutshell: In order to get youth to listen again, the next President will have to change their discourse. In order to get them to believe again, actions will matter.

View the related PBS NOW program documentary, “Jobs for Jordan”.