Babylon & Beyond

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MIDDLE EAST: U.N. report finds many problems in Arab world

August 3, 2009 |  6:23 am

Cairo street scene Even the most optimistic of demographers can find reams of troubling statistics and startling anecdotes gleaned from living conditions in Arab nations across the Middle East and Africa.

The newest in a series of U.N. studies called the Arab Human Development Reports offers a sobering glimpse at the problems facing the Arab world: water scarcity, urban growth, persistent poverty, lack of democracy and human rights and a rapidly growing young population

These strains are intensifying during the global economic crisis.

The dominating headlines in the Arab world tend to be the Iraq War, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and apprehension over Iran's nuclear program. 

But the region's living conditions -- from high unemployment and rising hunger -- also threaten regional stability.       
Highlights in the U.N. report, Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries, include: 

--Young people are the fastest-growing segment of Arab countries’ populations. Some 60% of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world, with a median age of 22 years, compared with a global average of 28.

--Many Arab states have undergone extraordinarily long periods of martial law or emergency rule, transforming interim measures into a permanent way of conducting political life. Declarations of emergency are often simply a pretext to suspend basic rights and exempt rulers from any constitutional limitations, however weak. Post-9/11, most Arab countries passed anti-terror laws based on a wide and unspecific definition of “terrorism.”

--It is estimated that the Arab countries contain approximately 7.5 million refugees, in the form of those registered by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, for the year 2008. This share represents 46.8% of the 16 million global refugees registered under UNHCR and UNRWA for 2008.

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Crowded Cairo street. Credit: Reuters