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Revisiting Health Inequalities in the Arab Region

02 Nov 2020

Arab countries have committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the ultimate goal of “LEAVING NO ONE BEHIND”. Health is at the heart of the SDGs grounded in the value of heath equity.[1] The outbreak of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) underlined the long-existing health inequities in the Arab region. Inequalities in health are clearly an endemic feature in the Arab region despite the progress in health in past decades.[2][3][4][5] This blog builds on Arab countries’ commitments to, and investigates the degree of, progress made in achieving improved health equity in the region. More importantly, this blog discusses the major challenges behind health inequity in the Arab region.


Increasing literature notes the health inequalities among and within, the countries of the region. Two recent publications by Rashad and Shawky [6][7] demonstrate a very unequal distribution of ill-health as compared to the population distribution across the various national administrative locations and wealth quintiles. For example, the relative index of dissimilarity expressed in percent [7][8][13] (rID)[1], –an inequality distributional geographic summary measure, for infant mortality in Egypt, Morocco and Sudan is as high as 11.4 percent, 19.6 percent, and 9.7 percent, respectively, with rural settings being the most affected. Similarly, the concentration index redistribution need [7,8-13] (rCI)[2], –an inequality distributional wealth summary measure, demonstrates severe inequality with a clear economic gradient disfavoring the poor regarding infant mortality in Jordan and Morocco, reaching 11.6 percent for both. Moreover, the health agenda is still unfinished, particularly the improvement in health indicators over time does not guarantee improvement in the inequality distribution and is accompanied by a worsening of such a distribution. For example, the neonatal mortality in Egypt was halved from 30 per 1,000 livebirth in 2005 to 14 per 1,000 livebirths in 2014, however the decline was slow in Rural Upper Egypt and was nearly stagnant in the urban governorates, ending in a nearly tripled geographic inequality from rID% of 4.7 percent to 11.7 percent.[6][7]


Most importantly, the health systems in the region are blamed for being inequitable since their efforts are not equally shared by all population subgroups, with the poorest and the residents of rural administrative areas being the least served. For example, the severity of inequality by administrative areas and wealth measured by rID% and rCI% for inaccessible and unaffordable healthcare exceeds 10 percent in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan.[6][7]


This implies that the improvement in health and the healthcare systems’ interventions are not equally shared by the population at large. Systematic differences disfavoring and under-serving the poor and the rural residents move the discourse from health inequality to health inequity. This unfairness is often overlooked in the Arab region and is not at the forefront of priorities. The main reasons are the absence of an equity-framing and equity lens in identifying and addressing health inequalities.


The move in international thinking towards a broader vision for health is not yet fully captured in the Arab region. This raises a legitimate question: “what is the difference between assessing health and healthcare on one side and assessing health equity and healthcare equity on the other side?” The answer to this question needs clarification to highlight the need for measuring inequalities in the distribution of health and healthcare, in addition to the overall national averages.


In a new global thinking, there are two different dimensions for health - health status and equitable distribution of health. Health status is what is captured by the health statistics using the traditional measurement tools (count; ratio; proportion; rate). These traditional tools help in assessing the magnitude of the health-related conditions, expressed as overall national averages that could be disaggregated by age, sex, place of residence or any other sub-population disaggregation. The disaggregation helps in assessing the risk that a population subgroup might be at higher risk than the other subgroup(s). Using these traditional tools allows countries to identify the priority health-related conditions or healthcare systems pitfalls on their territories. These disaggregated statistics are available in many national and international reports, platforms or observatories.


Health inequity refers to the unfair and unjust concentration of ill-health or deprivation from healthcare in population subgroups that are avoidable and preventable.[14] Health inequity is a challenge facing all countries the world over. The problem is that health and healthcare inequities are not measurable, however, inequalities in health and healthcare are measurable and can be conceptualized to be judged as inequities.


Inequalities in health illustrate the systematic differences in health among the various population subgroups. When health inequalities are measured by simple gap measures, whether absolute or relative, many limitations are encountered that do not allow for assessing priorities, monitoring progress over time or comparing population subgroups.[7][8][13] In other words, comparing the various groups using the relative ratio or the absolute difference is intended to measure the risk of being affected, but not the concentration of health and healthcare for specific population subgroups. The difference in concentration is a problem of uneven distribution of ill-health or healthcare as compared to the population random distribution. Such comparison highlights the systematic differences encountered in case of inequalities. Thus, illustrating inequalities in health and healthcare requires measures that allow for comparing distributions rather than measuring risk.


Evidence about the magnitude of such unequal distribution and priority health inequalities are almost non-existent in the Arab region. National health information systems (HIS) are not designed to generate information on distributional health inequalities or their association with the social root causes of ill health. Most evidence on health inequalities are based on household surveys which are only carried by 17 out of 22 countries, and if available lack many health indicators and/or are outdated. Furthermore, countries struggle between the numerous social stratifications including wealth, education, gender, place of residence, nationality, …etc. using very simplistic gap measures which hardly portrait the factual signals.[7][8][13] Until now, there is no consensus on a social stratification and a standard distributional measure –more informative than gap measures, that can be routinely part of the HIS data to alert countries to the inequalities in health and identify priority health inequalities. These limitations coupled with the traditional focus on aggregated averages of health outcomes keep health inequality relatively invisible and public policies unaccountable.


The region’s health systems make use of the available evidence to address the unfinished health agenda but pay little attention to the many health inequity challenges. In particular, the health systems adopt sectoral actions explicitly targeting the priority health conditions that are not always the priority health inequalities.[6][7] They try to respond to the different health needs and even seek partnerships with other social sectors and implement multisectoral initiatives that cater for improving health among the high risk groups which are still not necessarily the vulnerable and underserved.


Most importantly, the health systems still carry the mindset that they are the sole health players and even if they seek partnerships, these are to relieve the burden of ill-health and not the burden of social vulnerabilities. It is true that the health systems are key players and should mainstream a fairness in their policies and interventions, however, this is just one step to achieve equity in healthcare, which is not a proxy for equity in health.[14] Equity in healthcare is a central goal of a robust health system and implies that healthcare resources and services are fairy allocated to the population at large, while equity in health is a central goal of “Whole-of-Government” that is managed within and outside the health systems using intersectoral actions.[14]


Other non-health sectors are key stakeholders and contributors for achieving better health outcomes in the society. Many applied interventions aim to relieve the burden of social vulnerabilities such as the conditional cash transfer program, women empowerment interventions, etc. However, this is not all what is needed. Embracing fairness recognized in the 2030 Agenda requires transformative policies and “Whole of Government” approach integrating an equity lens in all social arrangements and placing “Health in All Policies”. The achievement of health equity requires implementing a policy reform movement that includes articulating health as a whole-of-government responsibility, developing policies and strategies to prevent social vulnerabilities not just relief their burden.


To conclude, it is time for Arab countries to respond to the aspirations of their people and to engage with the current global movement by placing health at the center of development. Without an explicit picture of the distribution of health across the various population subgroups, it is not surprising that awareness and responsibility of ‘‘Whole of Government’’ remain constrained and countries remain silent on whether health inequalities increase, decrease, or remain stagnant and people remain vulnerable and underserved.

It is apparent that the extent of inequality in the distribution of health across the population subgroups is a complimentary key imperative piece of information in a country’s HIS. Furthermore, a “Whole-of-Government” business and “Health in All Policies” approach are the key route to “Leaving-No-On-Behind” and building resilient nation.



[1] United Nations. Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development; 2015. A/RES/70/1. Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[2] Ministry of Health and Population [Egypt], El-Zanaty and Associates [Egypt], and ICF International. 2015. Egypt Demographic and Health Survey 2014. Cairo, Egypt and Rockville, Maryland, USA: Ministry of Health and Population and ICF International. Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[3] Department of Statistics (DOS) and ICF. 2019. Jordan Population and Family and Health Survey 2017-18. Amman, Jordan, and Rockville, Maryland, USA: DOS and ICF. Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[4] Ministry of Health (Morocco), Pan Arab Project for Family Health (PAPFAM), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), World Health Organization (WHO). Morocco National Survey on Population and Family Health 2010-2011. Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[5] Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), UNICEF Sudan. 2016, Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2014 of Sudan, Final Report. Khartoum, Sudan: UNICEF and Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), February 2016. Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[6] Rashad, H., S. Shawky, and Z. Khadr. 2019. “Reproductive Health Equity in the Arab Region: Fairness and Social Success” Regional Study; The Social Research Center, The American University in Cairo, UNFPA/ASRO. [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[7] Sherine Shawky. Measuring Geographic and Wealth Inequalities in Health Distribution as Tools for Identifying Priority Health Inequalities and the Underprivileged Populations. Global Advances in Health and Medicine 2018: Volume 7: 1–10. [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[8] Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (Public Health Ontario). Summary measures of socioeconomic inequalities in health. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario; 2013.
[9] Wagstaff A, Paci P, van Doorslaer E. On the measurement of inequalities in health. Soc Sci Med. 1991;33(5):545-57. [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[10] Asada Y. A framework for measuring health inequity. J Epidemiol Community Health 2005;59:700–705. doi: 10.1136/jech.2004.031054. [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[11] Braveman P. Health disparities and health equity: concepts and measurement. Annu Rev Public Health 2006;27:167-94. [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[12] Koolman X and van Doorslaer E. On the interpretation of a concentration index of inequality. Health Economics 2004, 13: 649–656. Available at [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[13] World Health Organization. Handbook on Health Inequality Monitoring with a special focus on low- and middle-income countries. World Health Organization 2013. [Accessed 10 August 2020].
[14] CSDH (2008). Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on the social determinants of health. Final Report of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health. Geneva, World Health Organization. Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2020].



[1] The index of dissimilarity (ID) is a measure of inequality with which groups are distributed. It assumes that under complete equality, everyone’s share of health would be equal to his/her population share. It produces a single number that is an expression of the amount of inequality existing across all subgroups of a population. It can also be interpreted as the relative percent (rID%) that would have to move in order to produce an equal distribution. rID% is classified into low (<5%), moderate (5-<10%) and high (³ 10%) [7, 8-13]


[2] Concentration index (CI) is a relative measure of inequality that indicates the extent to which a health indicator is concentrated among the disadvantaged or the advantaged. It is calculated as twice the area between the hypothetical line of equality and the concentration curve. When there is no inequality the concentration index equals 0. It has a negative value when the health indicator is concentrated among the disadvantaged and a positive value when the health indicator is concentrated among the advantaged. The rCI% represents the concentration index redistribution need, it is calculated as absolute value of CI*75, to provide an inequality magnitude comparable to rID% [7, 8-13].

Sherine Shawky is a Senior Research Scientist in the Social Research Center of the American University in Cairo. She is a Commissioner in the Rockefeller-Boston University high-level Commission on Health Determinants, Data, and Decision-making (3-D Commission).


The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of neither the Arab Development Portal nor the United Nations Development Programme.

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COVID-19 in the Arab region: An opportunity for a transformative change

19 Oct 2020

This blog aims at illustrating the COVID-19 experience in the Arab region. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Situation Report of August 1, 2020[1], the Arab Region has detected 962,861 COVID-19 positive cases representing 5.5 percent of the world detected cases. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq carry over half of the reported cases. The spread of the infection is significant and the number of reported cases has doubled in the month of July 2020. Some countries show clusters of infected cases, while others are moving with large strides towards community transmission. The total number of COVID-19 deaths till August 1, 2020 is 17,393 which represent 2.6 percent of the COVID-19 global deaths.[2] Fatalities are highest in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Algeria representing 80 percent of the region’s COVID-19 deaths. The case fatality rate (CFR) in the region is around 2.0 percent, if we assume completeness of the death registration, ranging from 0.4 percent in Bahrain to 28.5 percent in Yemen.


Digging more in the reported statistics to compare distributions in the region rather than incidence reveals much inequalities between countries. The countries in which the distribution of COVID-19 reported cases exceeds the population distribution are the high income Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries which reflects the capacity of these countries to implement potent surveillance systems and detect infected cases. However, a deeper look provides evidence that countries in which the mortality distribution exceeds the distribution of COVID-19 reported cases are the low economies (Sudan, Yemen) and middle economies (Egypt, Algeria, Iraq). This piece of evidence does not only reflect inequality in distribution but demonstrates inequity between countries. If disaggregated data were available illustrating the disparities in COVID-19 incidence and deaths by wealth, education or any other social stratification, one would expect similar inequalities to exit within countries disfavoring the most vulnerable, who are more at risk of being infected and have limited access to the healthcare services..


It is worth mentioning that countries across the Arab region are expected to face higher rates of COVID-19 infection and deaths than official reported figures. The official figures in the region could be correct up to the level of the screened individuals, however as is the case everywhere, they do not reflect the real size of the COVID-19 pandemic.[3] Some Arab countries lack completion of the reported data and others suffer from underreporting of actual numbers due to their limited laboratory testing capacity. Even in countries where mass screening is available asymptomatic patients are not tested, the cost of the test discourages many from taking it and guest workers fear expulsion, all of which affect the number of reported cases.[3] The situation is most alarming in conflict affected countries. Very little information is available from Yemen, Libya, Syria and Sudan, as many years of war and turmoil have decimated their healthcare systems and their ability to implement an outbreak surveillance system. Consequently, till present, countries are unable to assess the true magnitude of the epidemic on their territories. A rough estimate of the possible total true number of COVID-19 infections, based on the reported number of deaths[4], postulates around 7 million COVID-19 cases in the Arab region. The results assume that Arab countries have only detected around 14 percent of true cases[1]. This number is still expected to under-estimate the magnitude of the true COVID-19 cases, as several deaths may be missed from the national statistics, and the pandemic may be larger.


The region is still unable to identify the most at-risk populations. The news that the elderly and those with chronic illnesses are at highest risk of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality are evident. These population subgroups are at highest risk of any ill-health condition or death not necessarily because of COVID-19 spread. Despite that many Arab countries have reported COVID-19 statistics on their government portals and through official state media to monitor the spread of the infection, there is no disaggregated data provided to identify who, where and when cases, recovery and deaths occur, masking the true underlying risk factors. Furthermore, there is little attention to the socially vulnerable, who are not necessarily those at risk. Health inequities disfavoring the poor and those in refugee camps and informal settlements should not come as a surprise.


Notwithstanding the human costs, the COVID-19 impact is felt most on the socio-economic and political fronts. Every day, people are losing jobs and income, notably women and those in the informal sector. Almost all national sectors are affected, many examples are palpable. According to the UNESCO data, all Arab countries closed their educational institutions for fear of COVID-19 spread with around 96.2 million learners affected by end of May 2020 (end of academic year). In return, the countries have rushed into online learning and virtual schooling, however, they are struggling to keep pace as in 2019, only 51.6 percent of individuals used internet and 51.9 percent of households had computers. Food security is at risk, in several countries notably the low economies and the conflict affected countries. The food shortage is expected to bring negative impact on the cultivated land and increase food prices. Tourism sector is heavily affected, with dropping hotel occupancy rates and arrival rates empty touristic places and deserted beaches. Several countries, including Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, are struggling with insurgencies, terror threats, and civil wars, which have led to thousands of casualties and millions of people being forcefully displaced both internally and externally. All Arab countries, as everywhere, suffer from muted production, increasing layoff rates, diminished revenues and significant economic losses.


This pandemic is a wakeup call to all countries to revisit their policies and strategies. The prevailing COVID-19 statistics are just a reflection of the long history of weak information systems. Production and use of evidence for policy decision making is still lagging behind, which is the root cause behind many failing policies.


The COVID-19 has illustrated critical feebleness in the healthcare systems. The already exhausted healthcare systems carry the burden of persistent sustained low investment in healthcare over the past decades.[2] The health systems in several Arab countries, generally, do not have sufficient healthcare infrastructure to cope with such crisis. Hospitals do not have enough beds or isolation units, they are short of trained healthcare professionals and medicine procurement. Many countries cannot support mass COVID-19 screening or hospitalization of all cases. In Syria, Yemen and Iraq, public health infrastructures have not only had insufficient funding and resources in the past few decades, but have also been impacted by the destruction of healthcare facilities during continuous bombing and the death or departure of healthcare providers.[3] In Syria, 46 percent of hospitals and primary health facilities are non-functional or partially functional[5], while in Yemen more than half the healthcare facilities are non-functional or partially functional.[6]


COVID-19 has expressed ineptitude in the development efforts. In low and middle Arab economies, the poor, refugees and displaced people have limited access to clean drinking water, adequate nutrition and sanitation, shelter, healthcare, and education[3] rendering compliance to the national precautionary measures and healthcare services unmanageable, which in turn increases the risk of COVID-19 infection and death.


COVID-19 has conveyed inadequacies of the social protection systems in the region. Many countries have worked on relieving the socioeconomic burden of the poor and those in the informal sector. They have provided shelter and healthcare to the refugees and the displaced. However, the economic toll is huge, and is beyond the low and middle economies. The evidence portrait the health burden in low and middle economies, where the percentage of the out-of-pocket expenditure on health from the total health expenditure exceeds the global average in 8 countries, ranging from 33 percent in Lebanon to more than 70 percent in Sudan and Comoros (World Health organization Global Health Expenditure Database, Arab Development Portal).


COVID-19 pandemic is a global call for sincere attention to build resilient nations “Leaving NO One Behind”, it clearly emphasizes that the piecemeal policies to relieve the health and social sufferings are not sufficient and will fail in front of any emerging crisis. The current package of public policies still produce social and health vulnerabilities with inequitable distribution of power and economic resources. The opportunity has come for transformative policies and reforms which are urgently needed to move the Arab region to a sustainable and resilient path.


In conclusion, the COVID-19 is much more than a health crisis, it is affecting societies and economies. This is the heritage of long years of underinvestment and piecemeal policies. While the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic varies from one country to another, it will most likely lead to economic losses and exacerbated inequities. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for a transformative change to save the health and wealth of the Arab region.



[1] World Health Organization. 2020. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Situation Report – 194. Available at: [Accessed 3 August 2020].
[2] World Health Organization. 2019. Strengthening health financing systems in the Eastern Mediterranean Region towards universal health coverage: health financing atlas 2018. World Health Organization. Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean. Available at: [Accessed 20 September 2020].
[3] Institute for Middle East Studies. 2020. The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa. The Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS), directed by Marc Lynch, the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University and supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Henry Luce Foundation. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2020].
[4] Nick Wilson. 2020. Comments to Author , Amanda Kvalsvig, Lucy Telfar Barnard, and Michael G. Baker. Case-Fatality Risk Estimates for COVID-19 Calculated by Using a Lag Time for Fatality. Emerging Infectious Diseases,, Vol. 26, No. 6, June 2020; Volume 26, Number 6 June 2020. Available at: [Accessed 15 May 2020].
[5] Whole of Syria Strategic Steering Group (SSG). March 2019. 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP). Syrian Arab Republic. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 27 April 2020].
[6] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 2020. Global Humanitarian Overview 2020. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 May 2020].
[7] United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. 2017. Transformative Policies for Sustainable Development: What Does It Take? United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Research and Policy Brief 23. Available at:$file/RPB23-Transformative-Policies-Flagship2016.pdf [Accessed 27 May 2020].
[8] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 2020. Global monitoring of school closures caused by COVID-19. Available at: [Accessed 25 August 2020].
[9] International Telecommunication Union. 2020. Global and regional ICT data. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 26 August 2020].



[1] Author’s calculations based on WHO reported data.

Sherine Shawky is a Senior Research Scientist in the Social Research Center of the American University in Cairo. She is a Commissioner in the Rockefeller-Boston University high-level Commission on Health Determinants, Data, and Decision-making (3-D Commission).


The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of neither the Arab Development Portal nor the United Nations Development Programme.

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The Macroeconomic Outlook for the Arab Region: Navigating Fiscal Distress during COVID-19 Crisis

23 Jul 2020

The impact of the outbreak of COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown measures on the economies of the whole world—including those of Arab countries— is devastating. The level of fiscal distress the pandemic has been causing for governments around the globe is unprecedented. In the Arab region, the channels that traditionally cause such effect are additionally overwhelmed by exogenous and endogenous variables that exacerbate the situation.


The first fiscal channel is associated with the decline in government revenues arising from the slowdown of the world economy and subsequently the Arab economies. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been revising the prospects of growth for the world economy. In its April 2020 publication, IMF’s growth projections for all Arab countries have been revised downwards with negative growth expected for all the countries, with the exception of Egypt. According to the World Bank (2020a), the pandemic effect is likely to cost Arab countries around 3.7 percent of their collective GDP, the equivalent of around US$ 42 billion. Moreover, the effect is expected to result in the loss of 1.7 million jobs in the Arab region and the fall of 8.3 million new persons in poverty (ESCWA, 2020a).


Annual inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) are expected to slow down immensely in Arab countries with an expected decline of 45 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 worth of US $ 17.8 billion (ECSWA, 2020b) with conservative estimates ranging from 14 percent in Kuwait to 45 percent in Iraq (Chemingui and Ben Jelili, 2020). The significant weight of tourism in a number of Arab economies intensifies the impact, with tourism representing around 4.5 percent of collective Arab GDP and providing more than 4.5 million jobs (Ghoneim, 2020). Those symptoms of economic slowdown in Arab countries compounded by the collapse in oil prices, and subsequently remittances (expected to decline by 19.3 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 as per the World Bank predictions for the Arab region (World bank, 2020b)), represent a huge fall in government revenues for Arab countries, whether directly given the inability of the government to collect taxes, or indirectly following the repercussions of such slow down which can last for years.


The second channel is associated with the relative increase in government spending as part of the “stimulus package” and measures adopted by Arab governments to contain the negative impacts of the pandemic. The amounts of financial resources devoted by these governments varied widely and are subject to the economic status and fiscal capabilities. The interventions adopted so far by the Arab governments ranged from the provision of financial assistance to economic enterprises, to ensuring that payment of salaries and wages of immigrant workers are being paid by their employers, to direct financial assistance and food stamps to poor households. Moreover, some governments reduced or waived taxes for specific periods of time for certain economic activities or specific income groups, in addition to other monetary measures undertaken by Central Banks (IMF, 2020). It is estimated that the amount of fiscal measures adopted by the ministries of finance in Arab countries represents 3 percent of collective Arab GDP, reaching 3.8 percent in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (IMF, 2020).


The outcome of the first two channels has been a “fiscal squeeze”, with a significant fall in revenues and a steep increase in short term and current expenditures. Budget deficits as percentage of GDP consequently increased, with expectations ranging from 2 percentage points in Egypt to around 7 percentage points for GCC countries, and 11 percentage points for Algeria. In addition, countries that used to enjoy budget surpluses, such as Kuwait and Libya, are expected to suffer from budget deficits (IMF, 2020), with the latter due to ongoing violent conflict.


These estimates are considered highly conservative and are expected to be revised upwards. Moreover, the debt to GDP ratio is likely to increase dramatically worldwide (United Nations, 2020) and for Arab countries in specific following the outbreak of COVID-19, the sharp decline in oil prices and the ongoing conflict in some countries. Hence, it is highly expected that Arab countries will run short of finding other means to finance their budgets, especially with the deteriorating conditions of oil prices, tourism, and other major Arab economic activities as transport and logistics.


The outbreak of COVID-19 has also revealed the weakness in the ability of several Arab countries to contain health pandemics, like many other countries in the World. In fact, the ranking of several Arab countries according to the Global Health Security Index shows humble figures[1], with a number of Arab countries ranking worst in the world namely Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, and Mauritania. As a result, it is expected that Arab governments will devote extra financial resources to improve their health systems in the medium and long run whether enhancing their health infrastructure, handling alike pandemics, or improving health insurance systems. This is likely to put an additional pressure on the scarce financial resources available for the Arab governments. The “bail out” packages expected to be provided in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis to allow the Arab economies to re-adjust are expected to be substantial. The political instability and violent conflicts in several Arab countries whether arising from domestic tensions or external threats are likely to further squeeze the fiscal policy space available for the Arab governments.


To sum up, the picture on the fiscal front is worrisome. The uncertainty associated with whether the COVID-19 crisis will wither away is likely to worsen the situation. The ability of the Arab countries to contain the negative impact of the crisis on their citizens is made more difficult due to the limited fiscal resilience. The fragility of the fiscal situation of Arab governments is likely to continue hence affecting negatively the macroeconomic balances.



[1] ESCWA (2020a), “Regional Emergency Response to Mitigate the Impact of COVID-19”, available at
[2] ESCWA (2020b), “The Impact of COVID-19 on Arab Economies: Trade and Foreign Direct Investment”, E/ESCWA/2020/Policy Brief 6, [ONLINE] Available at:
[3] Ghoneim, Ahmed Farouk (2020), “Exploring the Potential Impact of COVID-19 on Trade in the Arab Region”, UNDP Arab Developmental Portal , available at

[4] International Monetary Fund (IMF). 2020. Regional Economic Outlook, Middle East and Central Asia. [ONLINE] Available at:
[5] John Hopkins, Bloomberg School of Public Health in collaboration with Economic Intelligence Unit (2019), Global health Security Index. [ONLINE[ Available at:
[6] United Nations. 2020. “Debt and Covid-19: A Global Response in Solidarity” [ONLINE] Available at:
[7] The World Bank. 2020a. How Transparency Can Help the Middle East and North Africa, MENA  Economic Update. [ONLINE] Available at:
[8] The World Bank. 2020b. World Bank predicts sharpest decline in remittances in recent history. [ONLINE] Available at:


[1] For ranking visit John Hopkins, Bloomberg School of Public Health in collaboration with Economic Intelligence Unit (2019), Global Health Security Index, available at


Ahmed Ghoneim is a professor of economics in the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University. He is a research fellow at the Economic Research Forum for Arab Countries (ERF) in Egypt, and at the Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE) in Poland.


The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his/her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of neither the Arab Development Portal nor the United Nations Development Programme.

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Dina H. Sherif, Executive Director, Legatum Center and Adel Boseli, Investor in Residence, Legatum Center and CEO of VFlock, 11 May 2020

If we had a dollar for every time we read an article or attended a webinar that spoke about how the Coronavirus will change the world order, it is likely that we both would be able to retire by the end of this global pandemic and rapid economic decline. As two individuals who have been working in the entrepreneurship and innovation space for over a decade, consistently advocating for more impact-driven investing, the biggest hope that we hold on to is that this global pandemic will force investors to take a step back, pause, reflect and come to the realization that they too, must change.


Working to make this hope a reality, the MIT Legatum Center for Entrepreneurship and Development, brought together a group of venture capitalists and early stage investors from across the world to discuss the past, present and future of global investment with a focus on the role the investors community can, and should, be playing in shaping the world’s future.


Looking backwards to just a few months ago, the question seemed to be about which business would bring back the highest financial return. According to David Rose, Founder and Executive Chairman of Gust and Founder of New York Angels said: “The last couple of decades have been ambitious within a booming market. People were taking risks on things that may have been a long shot and valuations had gotten ridiculously high for startups here in the US, without fundamental changes in exits.” Some entrepreneurs seemed to believe that the more money you could raise and the faster you burned through it, the more you would grow and scale. Somehow, many investors seemed to be okay with that.


The past decade, we have also seen a rising wave of “impact investing” with pressure being put on investors to look beyond financial returns. This wave, despite the success of a number of impact investment funds globally, is still in its early days with many still working on convincing limited partners (LPs) that its returns are lucrative. The eve of the global pandemic had yet to see the rise of impact investing turn into a real movement.


Fast forward to where we are with today’s crisis, many startups are facing an early demise as a result of cash burn out, fragile business models and overinflated teams. Entrepreneurs are looking to investors to be their saviors by providing them with more cash and investors are spending sleepless nights contemplating who in their portfolio will survive and who is in fact, worth saving. According to Heather Henyon, Founding General Partner of Mindshift Capital, “we want to make sure that the companies we invested in continue to exist.” For Fadi Ghandour, Managing Partner of Wamda Capital, “investors will prioritize companies that have serious and robust business models, even if they have short term cash flow problems. Business models that are not sustainable are going to die. Cash guzzlers are not going to make it. Growth at any cost will no longer work. Reasonable growth and a clear path towards profitability is the way…”


We left that first conversation we had with investors feeling optimistic that investors were taking the time to ask the right questions. Perhaps Ghandour said it best when he said, “the world has changed and changed seriously, and we need to review how we invest, what we invest in, and what impact we create while doing that.” Investors, or at least the ones we spoke with, have been taking a moment to contemplate whether or not they had been investing in the right businesses to begin with.


Looking ahead, we know that business as usual is no longer an option. The past two months have not only revealed to us how unprepared our national healthcare systems are, they have revealed to us existing gaps across all systems. With the virtualization of our economy, sectors are rapidly transforming and new sectors are emerging. Investors are already thinking about these growing sectors—Fintech, EdTech, E-commerce, logistics, telemedicine, remote working platforms. The list could go on. While the investment engine has slowed down to digest the new reality, it hasn’t stopped—we are still seeing investment deals close in a number of emerging markets, especially for pandemic related solutions.


This perhaps brings us to our final point. We are living in a historic moment. There is no going back. The need for innovation to transform the current systems that are clearly broken could not be greater, which means the need for risk capital could not be greater. Just as we are asking policy makers, big corporates and entrepreneurs to step up and do better so that we do not once again, find ourselves where we are today, we are asking investors to also do better. Capital matters. How capital is deployed matters.


Investors have a role to play in shaping the future of every system and sector that touches our lives and we need you to take that role seriously. Don’t confine your thinking to investing in one business that will bring you high returns. Think about investing in a number of businesses that will build out a sector in a way that is resilient, inclusive and sustainable. Ask better questions. Ask more questions. Have better conversations, not just with the entrepreneurs you choose to invest in, but with your fellow investors and other ecosystem players at large. The coronavirus has forced us all to pause. Use that pause to change for the better and let that change start now.


This article first appeared in the MIT Legatum Center for Development & Entrepreneurship Blog. It was republished by the Arab Development Portal with permission from the Center. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not in any way represent the views of the Arab Development Portal.


Original blog available at:

Dina H. Sherif, Executive Director, Legatum Center and Adel Boseli, Investor in Residence, Legatum Center and CEO of VFlock Dina H. Sherif, Executive Director, Legatum Center and Adel Boseli, Investor in Residence, Legatum Center and CEO of VFlock

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Exploring the Potential Impact of COVID-19 on Trade in the Arab Region

AHMED GHONEIM, 07 May 2020

Though the Corona virus is dealing an unprecedented shock to the global economy, the extent of its relative impact on Arab countries is still not clear. This blog aims to identify the particular characteristics of that shock on Arab countries, with special focus on trade prospects, and to identify the channels through which its impact is likely to spread.


One factor that will condition the way Arab countries experience the pandemic’s disastrous economic consequences is their relationship to oil, and the shock to that commodity’s markets. Arab countries are highly dependent on oil prices, either as producers, like the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), or indirectly, e.g. via the remittances channel. Fourteen of the League of Arab States’ members are oil and/or natural gas producers. On average, oil and gas represent 30-60 percent of Arab countries’ total GDP. Oil revenues constitute 47 percent of government fiscal revenues for a country like Yemen and 97 percent for a country like Iraq, with GCC countries ranging between those two figures.[1]


Remittances constitute a major share of foreign exchange receipts for countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon. In 2018, remittances to the Arab region reached $62 billion US, up 8 percent on 2017.[2] The outbreak of the pandemic has seen oil prices plummet: the OPEC daily basket price slid to $17.73 a barrel on 16 April,[3] from $51.68 on 2 March.[4] Prices have plunged more than 70 percent from their December 2019 level of $64 US per barrel[5] due to friction among the major world oil producers at the outbreak of the virus in early March 2020.[6] The breakeven price for GCC countries to balance their budgets was $70 before the pandemic struck and increased public spending has become a reality.[7]


With the outbreak of the virus throttling the global economy, including the ten largest economies,[8] this trend is likely to continue. The slowdown in the world economy, and reduced world trade (due to the impact of COVID-19 and the trade war between China and USA[9]) will likely increase pressure on oil prices. As a result, a large portion of Arab trade will be negatively affected. Prospects for trade in the Arab region will not be spared as world trade declines, due to global interruptions in the production systems and widening budget deficits all over the world.


A second effect of the pandemic specific to Arab countries – all net food importers – is  greater threats to food security. Arab countries were already among the most vulnerable to food insecurity due to climate change effects, high population growth, and water scarcity.  Malnutrition and stunting among children are alarmingly prevalent in the Arab region.[10] Worldwide panic buying of food as the pandemic struck, uncertainty about its duration and ultimate effects, and the rethinking of how to manage food supplies globally point to an upward trend of food prices worldwide. The empirical evidence on the impact of the 2006-2008 global food crisis on Arab countries shows that on average food prices rose by around 20 percent, less in countries like Morocco,  more in Egypt and Djibouti.[11] Only the drop in oil prices is likely to avert the increase in food prices. The spot per barrel price of Brent in 2008 reached $97 compared to $28 on 17 April,2020.[12] Upward pressure on food prices, on the other hand, is likely to come from turbulence associated with the pandemic accompanied by expected protectionist measures.


The third specific characteristic of Arab countries that will shape the effect of the pandemic is their limited inclusion in global value chains.[13] While generally regarded as a negative feature of Arab economies, it may cushion the blow of the  COVID-19’s economic shock in the Arab world[14]. Disruption of global value chains is likely to be a main form of economic damage, mainly because of China, but also in the rest of East Asia as well as the large world economies.[15] Limited integration of Arab economies in the global value chain (measured mainly by trade in intermediate goods)[16] and the relative absence of an Arab regional value chain implies that the supply side aspect is likely to be mild. However, the demand side effects of high dependence on value chains in Arab countries is expected to be severe as in the rest of the world.


The fourth and final characteristic of the Arab region in terms of COVID-19 damage is the likely impact on trade in services. This factor, frequently underplayed in trade analysis, is likely to hit the Arab economies hard. Tourism, now halted all over the world, is a major source of foreign exchange and employment for a large number of Arab countries, including[17] Saudi Arabia (Hajj and Omra pilgrimage); and Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, UAE, and Lebanon (different types of tourism).[18] A sudden, extended halt to tourism is likely to have a significant negative effect on Arab countries’ balance of payments. The same is true for transport, where it plays a major role for some Arab countries as well as exportation of information and communication technology services. The 2018 ratio of exports of services to GDP in Arab countries reached around 9 percent in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia to 15-17 percent in countries such as UAE, Jordan, and Morocco.[19] Tourism (as proxied by travel) constitutes the lion’s share of service exports for countries such as Morocco (42 percent in 2018),[20] Tunisia (45 percent in 2018), [21] Egypt (49 percent in 2018),[22] and Saudi Arabia (66 percent in 2018).[23]


To conclude, the outbreak of the corona virus is expected to have unprecedented negative significant impact on Arab economies via trade channels. The Arab economies, like the rest of the whole world, will be severely affected, yet the specific nature of Arab countries’ economies and trade structures is likely to differentiate them from the rest of the world. Arab countries should rethink their trade integration. For example, intra-regional trade in agricultural goods and food staples, and regional cooperation on food stocks, can help serve national food security goals. Moreover, building up regional value chains and enhancing intra-regional trade in services after the end of the disaster can help them to mitigate the huge negative effects likely to follow from the COVID-19 shock.


[1] IMF (2016), “Economic Diversification in Oil Exporting Arab Countries”, paper presented in the Annual Meeting of the Arab Ministers of Finance, April 2016, Manama, Bahrain available at

[2] World Bank (2019),”Record High Remittances Sent Globally in 2018”, Press Release, April, 2019, available at


[6] Standish, Reid and Keith Johnson (2020), “No End in Sight to the Oil Price War between Russia and Saudi Arabia”, Foreign Policy Report, March, 14, 2020, available at

[7] Defterios, John (2020), “Why oil prices are crashing and what it means”, CNN Business, available at

[8] See Baldwin and Weder di Mauro (2020), “Introduction”, in Richard Baldwin and Beatrice di Mauro (eds), Economics in the Time of COVID-19, A Book, CEPR Press, available at

[9] The WTO was forecasting a slowdown in 2019 to 2.6 percent   of the growth of the volume the world merchandise trade down from 3 percent   in 2018 and was aiming that things can get better in 2020 if trade tensions are relaxed. See WTO (2019), “Global Trade Growth loses Momentum as Trade tensions persist”, press release available at

[10] ESCWA and FAO (2017), Arab Horizon 2030: Prospects for Enhancing Food Security in the Arab Region: Technical Summary, available at

[11] Ianchovichina, Elena, Joseph Leoning, and Christina Wood (2012), “How Vulnerable Are Arab Countries to Global Food Price Shocks?”, Journal of Development Studies (50) 9, available at

[13] ESCWA (2017), Transport and Connectivity to Global Value Chains: Illustrations from the Arab Region, available at

[14] Arezki, Rabah and Ha Nguyen (2020), “Novel coronavirus hits the Middle East and north Africa through many channels”, in in Richard Baldwin and Beatrice di Mauro (eds), Economics in the Time of COVID-19, A Book, CEPR Press, available at

[15] UNCTAD (2020), Global trade impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, available at

[16] For a review on how to measure integration in value chains and what kind of policies affect such integration see OECD (2015), “Participation of Developing Countries in Global Value Chains: Implications for Trade and Trade-Related Policies”,  Summary Paper, available at

[17] It represented around 3.9 percent of GDP in the Middle East North Africa (MENA). See World Economic Forum (2019), Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019,  available at For the Arab world, it represented around 4.5 percent of GDP and provided 4.5 million jobs 97 percent   of total employment in 2011) see World Bank (2013), Tourism in the Arab World can mean more than Sun, Sand, and Beaches, available at

[18] Arezki Rabah and Ha Nguyn (2020), op.cit.

Ahmed Ghoneim is a professor of economics in the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University. He is a research fellow at the Economic Research Forum for Arab Countries (ERF) in Egypt, and at the Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE) in Poland.



The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his/her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of neither the Arab Development Portal nor the United Nations Development Programme.


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Is Lebanon Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Ghassan Dibeh, 28 Jan 2020

Dismantling the Myths of Digital Technologies Blog Series

Ghassan Dibeh is contributing with a series of blogs aimed at initiating an informed discussion on the knowledge economy and the digital revolution. The blogs aim at deconstructing some of the generic narratives around these issues and to inform readers about various dimensions that need to be considered for Arab countries to benefit from the value-added and the competitive edge that digital technologies would create.


In an article on the Second Machine Age, the authors said "Many of the biggest ideas in technology over the past decade have centered on how people communicate, consume, transact and travel. Over the next decade, however, the most profound innovations—and investment opportunities—could be on factory floors, in operating rooms, at mining sites and energy facilities."[1] In effect, although we are still at the early stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is now entering a new phase where new technologies jump from consumption and entertainment to production and investment in productive and efficiency enhancing technologies. And this is the phase of the revolution that is most promising for advanced capitalist countries as well as for developing countries like Lebanon.

Smart phones and Apps may be superbly convenient and have transformed our daily lives, our commercial activities and how we interact with others, but they have not yet transformed the industrial landscape where the growth opportunities of the new technologies lie. Robert Gordon, a techno-pessimist, has argued that the new technologies, for all their pizzazz, have not had the same impact on productivity or life changing impacts as much as older technologies such as electricity, air travel, household appliances or even indoor plumbing in the 20th century.

In this respect, the new phase will not only allow such changes in productivity in countries that have already participated in the first phase of the revolution but will also allow countries that have missed out on it, to catch up and use it as a vehicle for economic development and competitiveness. The question then that begs an answer: Is Lebanon ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution? And more specifically, can it reap the benefits of this "second phase"? Well, the answer is a complex one.


Services economy trap

For one, Lebanon has not only missed the first phase but it in effect has an economy that is skewed towards low-productivity sectors, does not generate enough jobs for the highly skilled university graduates, and scored quite low on competitiveness, ranking 10th amongst fourteen Arab countries in the WEF 2019 global competitiveness report.[2] Furthermore,  according to the World Bank MILES report in 2012,  35.4 % of wage employees and 61% of the self-employed work in low-productivity services sectors such as retail and wholesale trade compared to only 14.3% of wage employees and 3% of the self-employed working in high productivity services sectors such as information and communication, financial and insurance activities, and professional, scientific and technical activities; while only 11.3% and 8% respectively work in manufacturing.[3]

These figures do not bode well for a country that aspires to join the next phase of this industrial revolution. To add to this laggard status, Lebanon does not even qualify for what can be called "passive" joining of the industrial revolution (IR) that some less developed countries may have the opportunity to join through automation. In this respect, the World Bank (2016) estimates that the share of jobs that could be lost to automation could be higher in developing countries than in developed countries.[4] To that effect, a study by Schlogl and Sumner (2018) introduces a model of a dual economy divided into an automation-prone sector (APS) consisting of jobs that are susceptible to automation such as agriculture and an automation-resistant sector (ARS) such as services that require non-routine work and human interaction. In this model, the agricultural sector is the most susceptible to automation. Applying it to the Lebanese case, we see that Lebanon is dominated by ARS i.e., its economic structure does not allow for such passive adoption of automation.[5] If we take this fact, we can say that Lebanon is stuck in a services economy trap similar to the familiar "middle income trap".


A way out

Lebanon must then find a way out of this "trap" to benefit from the second phase of the IR. This also must happen, as the leading sector now, which is banking, will be a declining sector as big data and its informational content will substitute for the role of prices, and hence money, in market economies as argued by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in his book Reinventing Capitalism in the Age of Big Data. Even though this is a far-fetched prediction and ignores the role of money as capital in capitalist economies, Lebanon, and as must be realized from recent events, must move away from its over-reliance on finance and banking.

As the new technologies are bound to production, we have to structurally change the economy towards increasing the share of the productive sectors mainly manufacturing. This will put Lebanon at the path of economic development and higher standards of living as manufacturing growth is tied with rising incomes in developing countries as argued today by many development economists such as Ha Joon Chang and Dani Rodrik. In this respect, Lebanon is latently ready for such a structural change as it has a large pool of educated labor force both internally and in the diaspora that can be utilized in building a technologically advanced industrial sector. Today the challenge then is to make technology catch up with education in Lebanon.


The specter of Preobrazhensky

In the 1920s a debate aptly called the "industrialization debates" erupted in the Soviet Union. The country was still dominated by agriculture and was backward industrially and the question was "how do we industrialize?" One economist who was party to the debate was Evgeny Preobrazhensky. His argument was simple but complex at the same time: the USSR can only industrialize by "exploiting" the agricultural sector for the benefit of the industrial one, i.e. resources must be transferred from one sector to another. This argument is still relevant today in developing countries. In Lebanon, an economy dominated by services and rentier economic activities, resources can be transferred to the technologically advanced sector through the tax system. The government hence needs to play a major role in the readiness of Lebanon for the 4th IR. The free market alone simply will not do it and a modern industrial policy is needed that gradually shifts the economy from a rentier one through taxation on rents and on wealth, especially financial wealth that is abundant in Lebanon, and then channeling it to the IR sectors.[1]

Lebanon, like most countries, understandably missed out on the first phase of the 4th industrial revolution as it was mainly centered in areas where winner- takes-all markets dominate such as Apps, communication, software and other purely digital forms. Now, with the new phase where such technologies will be paired with industry and material production, Lebanon has the chance to "upgrade" it's productive structures through such technologies. Lebanon is ready to do this "upgrade" as it has the know-how and a latent scientific-technological base. Given the immense challenges to that move, in terms of weakening the current dominant financial and rentier interests, what will be actually needed is no less than a new economic revolution to make Lebanon join the 4th industrial one.




[1] Morgan Stanley. 2019. The Second Machine Age Hits the Tipping Point. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed December 2019].

[2] World Economic Forum. 2019. The Global Competitiveness Report. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed December 2019].

[3] The World Bank. 2012. Republic of Lebanon Good Jobs Needed: The Role of Macro, Investment, Education, Labor and Social Protection Policies (“Miles”). [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed December 2019].

[4] The World Bank. 2016. World Development Report: Digital dividends. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed December 2019].

[5] Schlogl, L. and A. Sumner. July 2018. The Rise of the Robot Reserve Army: Automation and the Future of Economic Development, Work, Wages in Developing Countries. Center for Global Development. Working Paper487. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed December 2019].


[1] In China, economic development can be seen as resulting from resource transfers from the agricultural sector that promoted industrialization. See John Knight “Price Scissors and Intersectoral Resource Transfers: Who Paid for Industrialization in China?,” Oxford Economic Papers, New Series, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 117-135. See also Cristóbal Kay “Why East Asia Overtook Latin America: Agrarian Reform, Industrialisation and Development,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 6 (Dec., 2002), pp. 1073-1102.

Ghassan Dibeh holds a BA in Physics and a PhD in Economics from the University of Texas at Austin, and Professor and Chair of Economics at the Lebanese American University. His research and teaching interests include political economy, business cycles, and Artificial Intelligence and Capitalism. His research appeared in various journals including Physica A, Computational Economics, Review of Political Economy, Journal of International Development, Journal of Industrial Relations, and International Journal of Manpower.


The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his/her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of neither the Arab Development Portal.

Ghassan Dibeh Ghassan Dibeh

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An Interview with the General Authority for Statistics in Saudi Arabia on the web portal and statistical database

General Authority for Statistics in Saudi Arabia, 28 Nov 2019

This blog is part of a series of blogs that the Arab Development Portal is conducting with the Arab National Statistical Offices to provide updates on the reforms and plans taking place at the NSOs.

There is no doubt that the traditional reporting platforms no longer match the aspirations of internet users, whose percentage—in the Arab region— more than doubled since 2010, reaching 49.5% by the end of 2018, up from 24% in 2010[1]. As such, it became necessary for National Statistical Offices (NSOs) to develop open electronic platforms and statistical databases that adopt the latest technological tools for browsing, extracting and data visualization.

Also, traditional means do not meet the statistical challenges set by the 2030 Agenda, which emphasizes the importance of developing an inclusive monitoring and accountability framework to monitor the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the national, regional and global levels. It is therefore important to leverage on the technological progress and develop monitoring tools for SDGs indicators, establish national reporting platforms and update the already existing ones.

Although all NSOs in the Arab region have websites, only 11 statistical offices offer an online database and the majority of the offices continue to present data either in the form of simplistic static tables, posted as an image on the website, or statistical yearbooks disseminating annual or quarterly data in the form of PDF or excel files. Hence, the need arises to improve the weak infrastructure of the online dissemination of official statistics in the Arab region.

In fact, the General Authority for Statistics in Saudi Arabia (GASTAT) is among the few Arab NSOs that have a web portal and an online database, allowing an easy access to data and information. In line with its efforts to support the dissemination of high-quality data, research and evidence-based decision making, the GASTAT is developing a new portal to provide accurate, comprehensive and credible updated statistical products and services.


In an exclusive interview with the Arab Development Portal, Mr. Raed Al-Qahtani, Director of the Department of Content and Electronic Publishing at the General Authority for Statistics in Saudi Arabia, spoke about the efforts undertaken by the GASTAT to improve user experience in accessing official data through the portal and database, as well as the future plans in developing a national platform for SDGs monitoring and reporting.


1. GASTAT is currently developing a new web portal - what features and updates should we expect? And when will you launch the new web portal?

The General Authority for Statistics is developing the web portal to meet the needs of its users. The main objective of this development process is to provide high-quality data and facilitate access to the GASTAT content, in addition to improving the classification of the website compared to other statistical offices’ websites regionally and internationally. Below is the list of features that the new GASTAT web portal will include:


Develop the statistical content and tools:

-Increase the statistical content in the main interface of the website.

- Add new pages related to international and national indicators.

- Highlight the results of the statistical products and their indicators and the most visited products.

- Display the stages of statistical work.

- Improve the statistical classifications.

- Update the statistical calendar.

- Display the statistical terms and equations used.

- Link the statistical products with the database.


Develop the data visualization tools:

- Download files in the format of API, XML, Excel, PDF.

- Display the graphs in an interactive manner.

- Add different statistical indicators.

- Download methodologies.

Improve the communication about GASTAT events:

- Add GASTAT’s activities and events.

- Add GASTAT’s awards, initiatives and projects.

- Add GASTAT’s future events.

Update some of the e-services:

- Interactive presentation of the government services directory.

- Update the request of statistical information service.

- Add a registration option to the website.

- Add the live chat service to the customer service.

- Activate the voice listening service.


GASTAT is planning to launch the new portal at the beginning of 2020.


2. GASTAT prepared a statistical report on the current status of the SDGs in Saudi Arabia, is there a plan to develop a national platform for SDGs monitoring and reporting?

There is still no plan to establish an independent national platform for SDGs monitoring and reporting. The General Authority for Statistics is the entity in charge of statistical affairs, and responsible for the dissemination of the SDG indicators. As such, we are currently working on developing a platform as part of the GASTAT’s portal based on the international standards.


3. What are the most visited pages on the web portal? And what are the most downloaded topics?

The social topics that are of interest to families and individuals attract the majority of the visitors and are the most downloaded topics on the web portal.

4. Does GASTAT currently have dynamic data visualization tools? If yes, what features does it offer?

The General Authority for Statistics has dynamic tools for displaying data and statistical products. Indicators are displayed in a graphical form according to the type of each indicator. In addition, data by region are displayed in the form of an interactive map.


5. GASTAT produces several infographics and videos that are published on the web portal as well as on social media platforms.  Do users interact more with the visual products or with the traditional statistical reports?


Infographic designs that contain statistical data are attracting many users based on their background. In general, users interact more with social statistics, while economists and experts are more interested in economic bulletins that are advertised through social media platforms.


6. What challenges do you face in managing the web portal and database?

A big part of the portal’s management has to do with automatically linking it to the database, which is subject to constant data updates. This is very challenging when it comes to managing the website and avoiding unexpected technical problems.


7. What are GASTAT’s future plans regarding the online dissemination of statistics?

We aim to add the Authority's website on the global search engines and to be part of the international web portals’ classifications. In addition, we are establishing new partnerships related to electronic projects with several private and governmental institutions.



[1] ITU World Telecommunication. 2019. ICT Indicators Database. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 November 2019].



Raed Al-Qahtani is the Director of the Department of Content and Electronic Publishing at the General Authority for Statistics in Saudi Arabia.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his/her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views the Arab Development Portal.


General Authority for Statistics in Saudi Arabia General Authority for Statistics in Saudi Arabia

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On the Digital Revolution and Inequality in the Arab World

Ghassan Dibeh, 06 Nov 2019

Dismantling the Myths of Digital Technologies Blog Series

Ghassan Dibeh is contributing with a series of blogs aimed at initiating an informed discussion on the knowledge economy and the digital revolution. The blogs aim at deconstructing some of the generic narratives around these issues and to inform readers about various dimensions that need to be considered for Arab countries to benefit from the value-added and the competitive edge that digital technologies would create.


The world is currently in the midst of a new technological revolution: the 4th industrial revolution or the second machine age as described by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their seminal work The Second Machine Age (2014). The most vivid imagery of the impact of this new revolution, led by robotics and artificial intelligence, is the advent of robots and the replacement of human labor by machines, or more apocalyptically the occurrence of a technological singularity, when machine intelligence would surpass human intelligence as popularized by the technologist Ray Kurzweil. Despite such possibilities, the replacement of labor by machines is still a controversial subject with arguments on both sides. A recent report by the MIT Task force on the Work of the Future[1] casts doubt on the possibility, in the near future at least, of robots replacing millions of jobs in the US. However, the report warns of the impact of new technologies on income inequality.


In this respect, the new digital technologies will definitely have a salient impact on inequality of income and wealth, whether machines substitute for labor in all the economy creating huge unemployment (in the extreme case, one robot will control the whole economy), or whether those displaced by machines find jobs somewhere else in the economy (Say's law applying). Both cases raise very serious prospects of increased inequality, which in the current economic environment, will exacerbate such a trend brought to the forefront by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (2013). For example, according to the IMF, about half of the decline in the labor share can be traced to the impact of technology in advanced economies. However, in emerging markets the impact of technology on labor shares is lower affecting only one-fourth of the decline. Even though the importance of digital technologies in Arab economies is still to a large extent marginal, it is worthwhile to start discussing the potential impact it will eventually have on inequality in the region.



A Quick Look at Inequality in the Arab World


The Arab world, despite what has been called "The Arab Inequality Puzzle”[2], suffers from large inequalities. Wealth inequality is very high and extreme wealth inequality manifests itself in the stark magnitude of wealth control by few individuals and families. According to the Elena Ianchovichina, World Bank economist, wealth concentration in the hands of few individuals is much higher in many Arab countries than in other countries of similar levels of economic development. For example, few individuals and their families in Lebanon and Egypt control wealth equivalent to 30% and 24% of GDP, respectively.[3] Other studies show that, in contrast to the Gini-based low inequality measures in the region, the share of the top 10% of income earners in the Middle East ranges between 55% and 61% which are comparable with distributions in other developing regions and higher than the US and European inequality.[4] In addition the labor share is low (e.g. Egypt 29%)[5] and the Arab world experienced a decline in real wages by 2.7% between 2006 and 2011, the only region in which such a drop has been recorded.[6] Another grave example on the size of inequality is the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), which shows that the Human Development Index (HDI) loses 25% of its value when adjusting for inequality in health, education and income, which is the third-highest after the South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa regions.[7]


Digital technologies and Inequality


According to The Second Machine Age, technological progress in the era of digitization affects inequality through three channels: first, through differential returns to owners of capital and labor; second, the existence of winner-takes-all markets; and finally, through skill-biased technological change. Digital technologies are partly capital and hence “who owns the robots?” becomes a crucial question. In the Arab world, the concentration of capital ownership, financial wealth and limited access to financial markets, will cause those who currently own capital to own the firms that win in the digital race. As an indication of such financial hurdles, in many countries the administrative costs of startups are prohibitive. Even in startup friendly UAE, it is estimated that such costs amount to around 25,000 USD in the first year.


Second, in winner-take-all markets, compensation is mainly determined by relative performance while in traditional markets, revenues are closely correlated with absolute performance. In a traditional market, a worker who is 90% as skilled, or as productive as another worker, will get 90% of his or her pay. However, a slight differential in software programming abilities may lead to the domination of the market by the slightly better. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee observed, there would be no demand, for example, for the tenth best accounting software. Moreover, new technologies will help “superstar firms” to pull away from the rest, concentrating income in the hands of the few. In 2014, WhatsApp had 55 employees serving 450 million customers. In addition, the 2011 counterparts of the four most valuable companies in 1964 whose average market capitalization was $180 billion (in 2011 dollars), employed less than quarter in employees. In this respect, the dynamic of new technologies is global. Hence, the ability of a superstar firm located outside the Arab world to dominate the market would prevent local developers and entrepreneurs from competing with these global giants (Careem acquired by Uber). The existence of network and agglomeration effects would further allow global monopolies to dominate Arab markets with few subsidiaries of highly networked local entrepreneurs. These local entrepreneurs would, at best, form islands of innovation connected to the global monopolies that share rents with them.


Third, skill-biased technological change would make those with higher skills gain in incomes with respect to those with lower skills. Hence, wage or labor-labor inequalities will increase. As an indication of such a phenomenon in the Arab world (not related to digital technologies), there has been an increase in manufacturing wage inequality since 1980 as measured by UTIP (University of Texas Inequality Project) indexes. In this respect, inequality in access to education can have a significant impact on such disparities. According to the UNICEF “there are still very large gaps in education attainment in MENA, with a difference of up to 10 years of schooling between the top 20 per cent of the most educated and the bottom 20 per cent of the least educated.” Moreover, wealth inequalities have a significant effect on the completion of different educational cycles in the region.[8]


In sum, in the Arab world robots may not be coming in masse to replace human labor, however, they will be coming to widen the existing inequalities in income and wealth as digital technologies will create a big rift between those who own capital, have high skills and are globally networked and connected and between those who are not.





[1] Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2019. MIT Work of the Future. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 September 2019].

[2] The phrase appeared on the first in the World Bank’s MENA Economic Outlook, 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 September 2019].

[3] Brookings. 2015. How Unequal are Arab Countries? [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 September 2019].

[4] Paris Jourdan Sciences Economiques. 2015. Alvaredo, F., and Piketty, T. Measuring Top Incomes and Inequality in the Middle East. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 September 2019].

[5] Unadjusted labor share in Guerriero, M (2012) The Labor Share of Income Around the World. Evidence from a Panel Dataset, 4th Economic Development International Conference of GREThA/Gres “Inequalities and Development: new challenges, new measurements?”, University of Bordeaux, France, June 13-15, 2012.

[6] United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. 2015. Abu-Ismail, K. and N. Sarangi, Economic Growth Inequality and Poverty in the Arab Region. Regional Coordination Mechanism. [ONLINE] Available at:

[7] United Nations Development Programme. 2019. Human Development Report. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 September 2019].

[8] United Nations Children's Funds. 2015. Equity, Educational Access and Learning Outcomes in the Middle East and North Africa. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 September 2019]. 



Ghassan Dibeh holds a BA in Physics and a PhD in Economics from the University of Texas at Austin, and Professor and Chair of Economics at the Lebanese American University. His research and teaching interests include political economy, business cycles, and Artificial Intelligence and Capitalism. His research appeared in various journals including Physica A, Computational Economics, Review of Political Economy, Journal of International Development, Journal of Industrial Relations, and International Journal of Manpower.


The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his/her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of neither the Arab Development Portal.

Ghassan Dibeh Ghassan Dibeh

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The 2019 Visualize 2030 - Youth from the Arab region VISUALIZE their concerns on inequalities

Arab Development Portal Team, 29 Oct 2019
The 2019 Visualize 2030 - Youth from the Arab region VISUALIZE their concerns on inequalities

October 14, 2019After months of planning and preparation, Visualize 2030 paved its way through success for the third year in a row!

Organized by the Arab Development Portal (ADP) – an initiative of the Coordination Group of Arab, National and Regional Development Institutions (CG), the Islamic Development Bank and the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID), in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)— the third edition of Visualize 2030 data-camp was held in Beirut from 10 to 14 October.

Visualize 2030, the first regional SDGs data camp, is a unique initiative that encourages the consumption of data by youth from the Arab region in support of advocacy campaigns and innovative thinking around development priorities. It is a space for youth to channel their enthusiasm and to visualize —through data— their desire to live in a better world by 2030.


The Visualize 2030 data-camp: Telling a meaningful story through data

Throughout four intense days and nights of work, 65 young participants from 14 Arab countries that were carefully selected among the 464 applications received, collected and analyzed data, linking them to the Sustainable development Goals (SDGs) and crafted impactful audio/visual products that highlight their concerns and ambitions.

This year’s camp has attracted contributions from other UN agencies, namely WFP, UNESCO, UNICEF and UNFPA.

As in the previous Visualize 2030 camps, youth form multi-disciplinary teams, where statisticians, economists and graphic designers learn to work in harmony as data enthusiasts and have access to resource persons and an audio-visual facility, strictly using open source technologies. At the core and fundamentals of data visualization lies simplicity and empathy, the two most effective ways in communicating data.

Technical experts worked hand in hand with youth to expand their graphical literacy, enhance their skills to transform raw data into a compelling narrative and meet the goals of the data-camp: communicating and visualizing a data-driven story.

Data is a mere collection of numbers until they are turned into a story. Without adding a narrative to the data, the content can be overwhelming to most of the audience. During the 4-day training camp from 10 to 13 October 2019, the visualizers were working hard to find innovative and out-of-the-box ways to narrate their stories through data.

But finding the data was not that easy! Given that data and knowledge resources on development issues in the Arab region are often outdated, unreliable, and fragmented across multiple international, regional and local sources, the biggest challenge of all was finding a story that is supported with credible and timely data.
Youth were accessing data on their countries on the Arab Development Portal. The portal, acting as a knowledge facilitator between data users and producers, offers a dynamic database of more than 7,000 indicators extracted from National Statistical Offices and international organizations and an SDGs Tracking Tool.

From life on land to sustainable cities and communities, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development embraces 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that define a plan of action for people.

While youth are challenged to use their creativity and data skills to bring the vision of the 2030 Agenda to life, the 2019 camp’s theme particularly addressed inequalities in the Arab region, covered by Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities, a key enabler for the SDGs overall, which cross-cuts with other SDGs.

All youth agreed that inequalities represent a major obstacle to development in general and to youth empowerment in particular, and the challenges tackled by the 24 teams covered a broad range of issues - reflecting inequalities in their countries and the region. From gender inequality to discrimination against migrant domestic workers, from inequalities in accessing education and health services to lost opportunities in conflict affected countries, and much more.

Meet the winners!

Over 100 people including youth, data scientists, experts and journalists attended the closing ceremony, which took place in the historic Beit Beirut, a building destroyed during the Lebanese war and now operating as a cultural center. A panel of experts carefully selected the winners of this data and innovation challenge based on evaluation criteria that include but are not limited to the richness of data, creativity and innovation. During the ceremony the three winning teams were announced, namely:

  • First prize goes to Harf from Yemen

Shaimaa (23), Mohammed Abdlslam (24) and Aseel Ehab (23) produced a video which tells the  story of two young Yemeni students that saw their education, future and dreams destroyed by conflict. Souad was obliged to abandon her studies because she is a girl, while Ahmad’s school facility closed to host refugees like 48% of schools in Yemen. The video highlights a frightening figure where it is estimated that if war persists till 2030, global development in Yemen would be delayed by 39 years.

Entrepioneer 2030 team addressed the effects of war on children in Syria, mainly children with special needs. The future of these children is a major concern for Mohamad Bassel (25), Farah (24) and Omar (27). The video recalls that children account for 25% of casualties and that 64% of children in Syria are in need of assistance.

  • Third prize for Sanad from Sudan

Duaa (28), Ahmed (29) and Abubaker (30) talked about homeless children in Sudan and the challenges they face for being without identification documents. “These children live in the sewers and they came out of what they call their home during the Sudanese Revolution”, explained Duaa. The video reflects the shocking reality of one million children in Sudan, deprived of any access to basic services and without any proof of birth or identity of their parents.

The top three winners were offered cash prizes, but all 24 ambitious and self-driven teams went home with a life-changing experience!
All visual products are a tangible example of youth engagement and commitment to take an active role and make a difference in the lives of the people of the region. Every year, Visualize 2030 highlights UNDP’s commitment to empower youth in their journey towards a better, more sustainable future.

Harf team from Yemen for FIRST place in Visualize 2030!
“In the five-day journey, we, visualizers, learned how to find, analyse and visualize data. Above all, Visualize 2030 was a life experience compressed into a data-camp, and surely inspired us to take a step further in helping our societies more and more…”
Harf Team, Yemen

Entrepioneer 2030 from Syria for SECOND place in Visualize 2030!
“The 5-day data camp Visualize 2030 was the best experience we have ever had. The Arab Development Portal initiative promotes the use of data by young people in the Arab region, enabling creative thinking and stimulating constructive debate in the region. We are proud to win the second place among 64 skilled participants!”
Entrepioneer Team, Syria


Sanad from Sudan for THIRD place in Visualize 2030!
“No words can describe how life changing the camp is. Visualize 2030 created and fostered a space for knowledge and capacities and exchange of ideas amongst us all. I recommend all youth in the region to apply to Visualize 2030.”
Sanad Team, Sudan


 Arab Development Portal Team Arab Development Portal Team

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Technology-driven entrepreneurship pushes youth to think beyond limits: The Case of Tunisia’s EVOCRAFT

Arab Development Portal Team, 17 Oct 2019

Young people around the globe are powerful catalysts for positive change, committed to driving growth, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and changing the world. Today, 16 percent of the world population are aged between 15 and 24, accounting for 1.2 billion young people in 2019, of which 73.8 million originate from the Arab region.[1] Therefore, empowering youth in the Arab states to become drivers of change and unlocking their potential is central to establishing regional collaboration and promoting more inclusive and stable societies. However, more often than not, youth are frequently associated with crisis and their vulnerability to risks – be it risk to unemployment, poverty, inequality and indecent work or lack education, which are the key dimensions of exclusion.[2] The Arab region is one of the most youthful regions in the world, with almost 60 percent of the population below the age of 30.[1] However, today’s youth face tremendous obstacles in their personal development, which results in them suffering from economic, political and social exclusion. For instance, youth unemployment in the Arab region is at 26 percent, exceeding twice the global average of 13 percent.[3] While the continued challenges faced by youth are of a global nature, young people insist on making a difference and fight to overcome the existing barriers. Nonetheless, change is largely contingent on prioritizing youth participation and granting them the opportunity to address development challenges.


Youth are a vast source of ideas and solutions and have boundless aspirations that need to be valued and supported. For their potential not to go unnoticed, a space has been provided to youth in the Arab States by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through the Arab Development Portal’s (ADP) initiative: Visualize 2030.  This initiative calls upon youth in the Arab region to use official statistics with the aim of visualizing a data-driven story that highlights their concerns, hopes or ambitions regarding a development topic within the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The UNDP/ADP initiative believes in youth potential and the capacity they have to shape the social and economic future of their countries, aiming to help people see a sustainable future through the usage of data.[4]

While Arab youth suffer from many bottlenecks, this did not stop Visualizers from crafting impressive visual and audio data products throughout four intense days (and nights) of work, and this did not stop Evocraft team –2017 Visualize 2030 alumni— from taking their innovative idea forward, trying to make a change in their communities and beyond.

Evocraft is a technological startup based in Tunisia and founded by three active youth, Haitham Dabbabi, Imen Hajji and Ali Zahi. Evocraft aims to advance youth familiarity of scientific knowledge and technology. From assembling and disassembling electronics, a hobby picked up during childhood, co-founder of Evocraft and 2017 Visualize 2030 alumni, Haitham Dabbabi was great at pulling the pieces of electronic devices apart, but incompetent at gathering them back together. This energy inspired Dabbabi to create something of value for children after having been introduced to robotics and STEAM education for young children. This is when Evokit came to being, a set of mechanical and electronic parts which enables children to assemble, program and bring the robotic platform to life. This allows children to make mistakes and learn through trial and error, which helps create a knowledge base that is consistent with real life application, along with encouraging self-exploration via non-traditional means of learning.[5]

Evocraft’s motto, Think Beyond Limits, is revealed through Evokit’s product identity, which enriches the user’s learning experience through a manual that serves as a guide and a mobile application that controls the robotic platform once built. This motto was also reflected during Visualize 2030, where the team was encouraged to make use of national official statistics and address the challenges and development priorities they deem important in their region through enhancing their analytical, technical and innovative capacity.

Consistent with Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), quality education,[6] and inspired by guiding student dialogue, critical thinking and inquiry, Evocraft aims to integrate the learn through practice model into the product, targeting children above the age of 8. Digital transformation and data literacy are becoming a necessary means for survival in the face of the fourth industrial revolution. As the educational sector is becoming more competitive, the Tunisian entrepreneurs felt the need to address the vitality of embracing technology in primary schools and scientific organizations during Visualize 2030 camp to visualize a data driven story.

Across the Arab world, youth are devising out-of-the-box ideas to tackle the Fourth Industrial Revolution and global and regional issues through the use of technology. The ambitious team Evocraft represent an energy that strives to use innovation to build resilient communities. For them, what qualifies for good education standards is empowering children and youth to understand and value the importance of big data, digital literacy and acquiring tech skills against the rapid evolution of digital transformation.

Every year, Visualize 2030 addresses a development theme within the framework of the 2030 Agenda which helps youth think more creatively and answer vital questions on the importance of data revolution and how it will change the status-quo. The 2019 edition of Visualize 2030 will address inequalities in the Arab region, directly covered by Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities, but also cross-cutting other SDGs, and how big data can be used to tackle inequalities and promote strong and inclusive growth.

Visualize 2030 is one of many youth-led programs that empower and encourage youth to maximize their full potential and contribute to the success of the 2030 Agenda.[4] That being said, it is essential for youth to be at the center, engaged and involved in their communities, collecting, using and transforming data to inform their future and transform the world into a better place.[7]




[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). 2019. World Population Prospects. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17 June 2019].
[2] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). 2018. 2018 Report on the World Social Situation. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17 June 2019].         
[3] ILOSTAT. 2019. International Labour Organization. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17 June 2019].
[4] Arab Development Portal. 2019. The Visualize 2030 2018. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2019].
[5] YouTube. 2018. Evocraft – Startup Istanbul Finals 2018. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2019].
[6] Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDGF). 2019. Goals 4: Quality Education. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 2 May 2019].
[7] United Nations Chronicle. 2018. Youth lead the way to a more connected and sustainable world. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 May 2019].

Arab Development Portal Team Arab Development Portal Team

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