Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Inequality in the Arab Countries: Scope and Causes

Inequality in Arab Countries
Yemenis displaced by the conflict, receive food aid and supplies to meet their basic needs. KHALED ZIAD / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article has been translated from Arabic.

There is a wide range of different social inequalities, from those that measure the gender gap and the differences in the social environment between men and women in terms of opportunities, capabilities, job prospects, and education, to those that are concerned with significant inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth.

The possibility for social mobility and the ability of younger generations to develop socially or economically in comparison to their parents or earlier generations are also included in the scope of inequality. All of these elements show how deeply ingrained gender bias and class prejudice are in society. Additionally, they elucidate the mechanisms and measures that deepen or widen these gaps and examine the social and economic effects of such phenomena.

Scope and indicators of inequality in Arab countries

A recent ESCWA report provides a set of metrics that show that, as a result of many security, political, and economic factors, Arab nations together rank first in the world in terms of inequality. In Arab nations, the wealthiest 10% of the population today own 58% of the country’s total wealth.

In comparison, only roughly 8% of the total wealth is distributed to the 50% of society with the least resources. These numbers demonstrate extreme class disparity, which is greater than that found in any other part of the world. For instance, in comparison to these numbers, the wealth held by the top 10% of society does not surpass 36% in Europe, 55% in Latin America, and 52% worldwide.

Even more concerning is the fact that Arab nations mostly lack the possibility for social mobility across the various classes, as stated in the same research. In actuality, once a family enters poverty, such conditions are anticipated to be passed down to subsequent generations.

The significant lack of social mobility potential is frequently caused by inadequate or nonexistent public services, which are designed to give the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people access to opportunities and free education.

The absence of social safety networks, which are intended to ensure the fundamental necessities for such families rather than maintaining succeeding generations of these socioeconomic strata in a cycle of decline, is another element that contributes to the problem.

According to estimates, the Arab region will require more time than the rest of the world (142 years) to overcome the gender gap, which is a reflection of the disparities between men’s and women’s access to work, education, and other opportunities.

According to statistics that reveal a significant disparity between men and women in terms of unemployment rates, illiteracy, individual income, and political empowerment, Arab nations fall below the world average in terms of gender equality. Notably, this crisis component was considerably exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic and its effects on economic development and the efficiency of public institutions.

Factors that widen social and gender differences

Several factors contribute to the growth of this societal divide, with conflict and insecurity at the forefront. Large populations of refugees and persons who have been forcibly displaced during times of wartime upheaval struggle to meet even their most basic necessities.

This inevitably raises the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty, which is exactly what happened when war broke out in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. The populations of these nations suffered as a result of the state institutions’ incapacity to deliver the most fundamental public services, while refugees suffered from the loss of food security, health, and education services.

According to data, less than 3% of the GDP of Arab nations was spent on health care, compared to more than 4% in Latin American and East Asian nations and the average of roughly 6% worldwide. The most vulnerable groups frequently spend a larger percentage of their income to obtain these health services due to the decrease in Arab nations’ investment in public health care.

This in turn is reflected in the widening of class differences between the different segments. In contrast to the decline in spending by Arab countries on health services, the percentage of spending on armaments rises to nearly 6%, compared to less than 2.25% worldwide. Thus, the financing of armed conflicts and equipment to maintain security comes at the expense of spending on public services, which yet again links the phenomenon of class disparities to military conflicts.

Gender gaps, meanwhile, are widening due to various social, institutional and legal causes. These include exclusionary social practices, which often prefer investing in the education of male children, and discrimination in the distribution of inheritance between males and females, both of which ultimately lead to a large disparity in income and wealth between the sexes.

Local traditions also play a major role in barring women from certain professions, or restricting them to jobs with lower wages as compared to those practiced by men, and even denying them an education altogether. In addition, armed conflicts contribute to widening the gender gap as the effects on women in displacement camps and conflict zones are doubled.

High poverty rates also frequently make it more difficult for children from low-income households to advance socially, forcing them into the workforce before they finish their schooling. This situation is made worse by the absence of public schools, which are meant to educate children from low-income families who cannot pay for private school fees.

The marginalization of formal education has been further worsened by the flaws in official institutions in Arab nations beset by serious security and military crises. In addition, they have reduced these states’ ability to keep pace with demographic growth by opening new public schools and universities.

Steps to bridge the vast differences

In actuality, the majority of Arab nations should begin a thorough tax reform process that will enable the adoption of progressive taxes that account for taxpayer income and enable the development of the collection base to pay for social expenditures.

These tax revenues may provide these nations with the vital financial resources they need to fund social safety nets, formal education, public healthcare, and assistance initiatives for the most disadvantaged. As a result, these nations might take steps to achieve social justice and make it possible for the underprivileged to utilize these public resources for social growth.

Parallel to these actions, Arab nations must enhance their governance and transparency frameworks to combat public corruption and waste, which are the main causes of the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small number of powerful individuals.

Arab nations should likewise mandate free, universal education for both sexes and make it mandatory, since this will provide women the same prospects as men for social mobility and future employment.

These nations must also hasten the creation of legislative frameworks that safeguard women from marginalization and gender discrimination in the workplace. Legal protections for women against domestic abuse and other practices that put them at social risk are also necessary.

Parallel to this, international organizations have a duty to see that during times of military conflict, relief and protection structures are in place to shield women and children from the effects of armed conflict.

The state’s role in creating policies for redistribution and safeguarding disadvantaged populations must be changed, and all of these measures must be incorporated into comprehensive official economic plans.

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