World Bank: Reforming Education in Arab World Must Be Priority

Saudi students sit for their final high school exams in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on June 19, 2010. (AFP)
Saudi students sit for their final high school exams in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on June 19, 2010. (AFP)

World Bank: Reforming Education in Arab World Must Be Priority

Saudi students sit for their final high school exams in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on June 19, 2010. (AFP)
Saudi students sit for their final high school exams in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on June 19, 2010. (AFP)

The quality of education in the Arab world has dropped in comparison to other regions in the world, which demands immediate reform to tackle development needs and employment in the future, said a recent World Bank report on education in the Middle East and North Africa.

The report urged Arab countries to set education as a priority because it is the basis for any future economic and social development process.

The Arab region has not achieved remarkable progress in recent years in reducing illiteracy, compared to Asian and Latin American countries. The worst in this regard were Djibouti, Yemen and Egypt. Furthermore, the region is still behind from the rest of the world in erasing illiteracy among people above 15 years of age. The numbers of students enrolled at high schools and universities has also not improved.

The World Bank report did acknowledge that the gap in education between the genders in the Arab world is becoming smaller.

One of the compilers of the report said that the time has come for Arab countries to focus their energies on the quality of education and preparing students for the modern job market. They should also train students on problem-solving and critical and innovative thinking. Teachers themselves should also be re-trained in these skills.

Unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa lies at 14 percent, which is higher than the rest of the world, excluding some parts of Africa. The greatest levels of unemployment were registered in the Palestinian territories. A third of the population of 300 million is also illiterate.

Young society

The need for reform in the Arab world is highlighted by the youthful society, where 60 percent of the population is younger than 30 years of age. This means that the region will need to create 100 million job opportunities for the youths over the next two decades. Economic development in region relies heavily on educational reform.

The World Bank report hailed the efforts of Jordan and Kuwait to that end, but it did remark that the reform did not reach the desired level. It explained that the relation between education and the workforce remained weak, adding that the quality of education did not improve.

Investment with poor resources

For 40 years, Arab countries spent about five percent of their general domestic income on education and they have achieved several results from this investment. At present, the majority of children benefit from mandatory education and a good percentage of them reach the levels of higher education. The region has also improved in raising fertility and lowering mortality rates.

Despite this improvement, the general progress in the Middle East and North Africa region remained less than others. In addition, educational curricula still produce more graduates in the theoretical sciences than practical ones.

The region has also failed to take the best advantage of its available human resources. Unemployment remains high among graduates and many of them find work in the government The relationship between economic growth, the distribution of income and lowering levels of poverty remains weak. The current educational system in the region does not produce graduates with the necessary skills and experience to compete on the global level where knowledge is the key to progress.

Employment crisis

Despite government attempts to provide education to the greatest number of students through construction of schools and hiring teachers, they have failed in assessing the connection between the efforts of the teachers and the accomplishments of the students and monitoring the educational process.

The World Bank report also spoke of the gap between what educational institutions provide and what the job market demands. This gap does not simply revolve around failing to produce graduates with the demands of the market, but the market itself has not grown enough to accommodate those graduates. In some countries, this is reflected in high levels of unemployment.

The next level of developing education in the region appears difficult to achieve in that it needs to develop an accountability and assessment mechanism. It should also focus on reforming education and the job markets.

This process will not be the same in all of the countries in the region because some of them have taken great leaps in achieving educational reform. All these countries need, in one way or another, to set incentives and systems of accountability that will yield results in the reform process.

Facts and figures

UNESCO estimates that 76.9 percent of the Arab world is literate. The literacy levels in some countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf area, is above 90 percent, while it is less than 50 percent in Mauritania and Yemen.

Other education facts in the Arab region:

- About 100 million people are illiterate, two thirds of them women.

- A UN survey found that the average Arab reads only four pages a year.

- An Arab Thought Foundation report found that only eight percent of people in the Arab world want to improve their level of education.

- The Arab woman still suffers from a lack of education opportunities.

- There is no incentive system to encourage older illiterates to continue their education and improve their academic skills.

- Women face challenges in leaving the house and pursuing an education at schools due to social pressures.

A Year Ago, Russian Mercenary Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin Challenged the Kremlin with a Mutiny

People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)
People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)

A Year Ago, Russian Mercenary Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin Challenged the Kremlin with a Mutiny

People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)
People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)

On a lazy summer weekend a year ago, Russia was jolted by the stunning news of an armed uprising. The swaggering chief of a Kremlin-sponsored mercenary army seized a military headquarters in the south and began marching toward Moscow to oust the Defense Ministry’s leaders, accusing them of starving his force of ammunition in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin and his soldiers-for-hire called off their "march of justice" only hours later, but the rebellion dealt a blow to President Vladimir Putin, the most serious challenge to his rule in nearly a quarter-century in power.

Prigozhin’s motives are still hotly debated, and the suspicious crash of the private jet that killed him and his top lieutenants exactly two months after the rebellion remains mired in mystery.

A look at the mutiny and its impact:

Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin? Prigozhin, an ex-convict, owned a fancy restaurant in St. Petersburg where Putin took foreign leaders. That earned Prigozhin the nicknamed of "Putin’s chef." Those ties won him lucrative government contracts, including catering for Kremlin events and providing meals and services to the military.

He founded the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, in 2014, using it to advance Russia's political interests and clout by deploying mercenaries to Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. Wagner fighters provided security for African leaders or warlords, often in exchange for a share of gold mines or other natural resources.

Prigozhin gained attention in the US, where he and a dozen other Russians were indicted by the Justice Department for creating the Internet Research Agency — a "troll farm" that focused on interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. The case was later dropped.

What was Wagner's role in Ukraine? After Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Wagner emerged as one of the most capable of Moscow’s fighting forces. It played a key role in capturing the eastern stronghold of Bakhmut in May 2023.

Prigozhin was allowed by the Kremlin to swell Wagner's ranks with convicts, who were offered amnesty after serving six months on the front line. He said 50,000 were recruited, and 10,000 of them died in the ferocious battle for Bakhmut.

The war added to Wagner's reputation for brutality. In a video that surfaced in November 2022, a former Wagner mercenary who allegedly defected to the Ukrainian side but later was captured by Russia, was shown being beaten to death with a sledgehammer, the mercenary group's symbol.

What led to the uprising? For months in 2023, Prigozhin complained bitterly about the military brass denying his forces the needed ammunition in Ukraine. In open political infighting, he blasted then-Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov in profane rants on social media, blaming them for military setbacks and accusing them of corruption.

The Defense Ministry's order for Wagner to sign contracts with the regular military appeared to be the final trigger for Prigozhin's extraordinary rebellion on June 23-24.

His mercenaries swiftly took over Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, reportedly hoping to capture Shoigu and Gerasimov. But they weren't there.

Prigozhin ordered his forces to roll toward Moscow, saying it wasn't a military coup but a "march of justice" to unseat his foes. The mercenaries downed several military aircraft en route, killing over a dozen pilots. Security forces in Moscow went on alert and checkpoints were set up on the southern outskirts.

At the height of the crisis, Putin went on TV and called the rebellion by his onetime protege a "betrayal" and "treason." He vowed to punish those behind it.

But Prigozhin abruptly aborted the march hours later in an amnesty deal brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The mercenary forces were offered a choice of moving to Belarus, retiring from service or signing contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.

Prigozhin later said he launched the uprising after he "lost his temper" in the infighting with his foes. Some commentators said he apparently hoped to persuade Putin to take his side against the military brass — a grave miscalculation.

What was Prigozhin's fate? On Aug. 23, two months to the day after the rebellion, a business jet carrying Prigozhin, 62, and his top associates crashed while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing all seven passengers and a crew of three.

State investigators have yet to say what caused the crash.

A preliminary US intelligence assessment concluded there was an intentional explosion on board. Western officials pointed to a long list of Putin foes who have been assassinated.

The Kremlin has denied involvement and rejected Western allegations that Putin was behind it as an "absolute lie."

Prigozhin was buried in his hometown of St. Petersburg in a private ceremony.

What has happened to Wagner? Several thousand Wagner mercenaries moved to a camp in Belarus after the mutiny. Soon after Prigozhin's death, most left that country to sign contracts with the Russian military to redeploy to Africa or return to fighting in Ukraine. Only a handful stayed in Belarus to train its military.

Russian authorities formed a Wagner successor, Africa Corps, using it to expand military cooperation with countries there. Moscow has emerged as the security partner of choice for a number of African governments, displacing traditional allies like France and the United States.

Elements of Wagner and other private security companies continue to operate in Ukraine under the control of the Defense Ministry and the Russian National Guard.

"Despite the spectacular demise of Prigozhin himself and the problems that Wagner got itself into as a result of that, the model — the idea of a private company profiting from this war — is one that is attractive to a lot of people in Russia," said Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

How has Putin responded since the uprising? Prigozhin’s demise sent a chilling message to Russia's elites, helping Putin contain the damage to his authority inflicted by the rebellion.

A crackdown continued on his political foes, with many either fleeing the country or ending up in prison. His biggest opponent, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic penal colony in February.

In a stage-managed election in March, Putin won another six-year term. In a subsequent Cabinet shakeup, Putin dismissed Prigozhin’s archfoe, Shoigu, as defense minister, replacing him with Andrei Belousov, an economics expert. Shoigu, who had personal ties with Putin, was given the high-profile post of secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

"If Shoigu’s new job had been too junior, it would have been humiliating, and could have triggered such criticism of the outgoing minister as to highlight the army’s weaknesses: something to be avoided in wartime," Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said in a commentary.

At the same time, Shoigu's entourage faced purges. A longtime associate and deputy, Timur Ivanov, and several other senior military officers were arrested on corruption charges, and other senior Defense Ministry officials lost their jobs.

Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff and another Prigozhin foe, has kept his job so far.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who reportedly had close ties with Prigozhin, was stripped of his post as deputy commander of forces in Ukraine and given a ceremonial position. Surovikin, credited with creating the multilayered defensive lines and fortifications that blunted Ukraine’s offensive a year ago, wasn’t dismissed altogether, and some observers suggest he could eventually be given a new military post.