the middle east and north Africa

Developments in the Middle East and North Africa

Updated: 29 May 2017

The Middle East and North Africa region, or MENA, is comprised of 18 countries as well as the occupied Palestinian territories and Western Sahara. It is a region with vast inequalities between people. The area as a whole is considered a middle-income region, but there are great disparities in purchasing power between different parts of the region. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of democratic institutions, which hampers a positive economic and political development.

MENA has historically been characterised by authoritarian and totalitarian governance. The lack of functioning democratic mechanisms and respect of fundamental human rights is often pointed out as reasons for the region’s underdevelopment, particularly with regard to the poor position of women, at all levels of society. Women in the region are deprived of many of their rights, both formally and in reality. Six years after the Arab spring, the MENA region is still characterised by political instability with human consequences of megaproportions, particularly in Syria but also in other parts of the region. The coming years will probably be characterised by a fragile economic growth, reduced investment and political conflicts. There is armed conflict and internal tensions in several of the region’s countries, which has created enormous humanitarian needs, increased poverty and a lack of respect for human rights that severely impacts already vulnerable groups in society. The Syria crisis, but also the Yemen and Libya conflicts, have created human suffering of megaproportions, placing the capacity of the multilateral organisations under great pressure.

Weak conditions for trade, employment and economic development are often related to environmental and climate challenges and risk creating incentives for conflicts. MENA is one of the regions most vulnerable to increased temperatures and drought. The climate impact is increasing and affects the food, energy and water supply negatively.  Regional economic cooperation is also not fully developed and lacks coordination to facilitate regional and international trade. This is partly due to the large geographic area but also to the countries' different levels of development and varying political priorities. Barriers to regional trade include weak regional institutions, inadequate trade infrastructure and ineffective border management. Economic policy in the region is mainly focused on bilateral cooperation. The economic prospects are therefore bleak in the region, with high unemployment, especially among young people.

It should be possible for a large young population to be an asset, but it will probably be a destabilising force as long as prospects on the labour market are dark, something which is also increasingly true in the wealthy Gulf States. The pattern of uneven development in MENA will probably continue: the oil-producing Gulf States offer the most opportunities for the young population and for talent from other countries, at the same time as the gap between these states and the rest of the region is increasing.


Page owner: Department for Asia, North Africa and Humanitarian Assistance

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