Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Life satisfaction in Arab countries

How do people in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia feel about their lives? Summarising analysis of data collected in nationally representative surveys, this column highlights three core messages about their reported health, happiness and views of the future.

In a nutshell

Personal experiences largely determine whether people continue to support the economic and political institutions that underpin their society.

In terms of satisfaction with their economic situation, only 15% of respondents in the region say that they are living comfortably on their present income.

More than two thirds of people in the region are generally optimistic about their future, with women slightly more optimistic than men.

Since the early days of the Arab Spring in 2010, many Middle Eastern countries have experienced a profound transformation of their economic and political institutions. How has this affected people’s lives and their social, economic and political preferences? Understanding this process is important as personal experiences largely determine whether people continue to support the economic and political institutions that underpin their society.

To monitor people’s perceptions and attitudes, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) publishes assessments for its countries of operation in the South-eastern Mediterranean region (SEMED): Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. (Lebanon became an EBRD country of operation in mid-2017 and is not part of the most recent assessment round.)

The most recent assessments are based on data from the 2011 and 2015 Gallup World Polls, nationally representative surveys that are conducted every year in over 120 countries. In each country, about 1,000 individuals are asked about a wide range of topics.

The data provide rich information on demographic characteristics (age, gender, educational attainment, marital status and religion) as well as labour market outcomes. The survey also includes sections on attitudes and values, public service delivery and inclusion, among others. Importantly, the Gallup data also make it possible to benchmark the SEMED region vis-à-vis some advanced market economies (France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the UK) as well as Emerging Europe (the ‘transition region’).

The ‘transition region’ comprises Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan); Central Europe and the Baltic states (Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovak Republic and Slovenia); Eastern Europe and the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine); Russia; South-eastern Europe (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia); and Turkey.

The country assessments reveal three core messages about attitudes in the SEMED region:

The ‘happiness gap’ remains substantial

Today, individuals living in the SEMED region report levels of life satisfaction lower than for those who live in the transition region and Western Europe (Figure 1). Egypt (25%) has the lowest share of respondents who are currently satisfied with their life. In sharp contrast, life satisfaction is higher in Jordan (43%) than in any other SEMED country.

There are also some notable differences with regard to demographic characteristics. For example, Figure 2 shows that women have considerably higher levels of life satisfaction in Jordan and Morocco. When it comes to satisfaction with the economic situation, only 15% of respondents in the SEMED region state that they are living comfortably on their present income. The corresponding proportions are 17% in the transition region and 36% in Western Europe.

People are optimistic about the future

On the bright side, people in the SEMED region are generally optimistic about their future (68% – Figure 3). This figure is higher than in the transition region (55%) and Western Europe (41%).

Moreover, women are slightly more optimistic than men in all SEMED countries (Figure 4). Additional analysis of the Gallup data shows that on average, older and poorer individuals tend to report lower levels of life satisfaction. These groups are also less optimistic about the future and this holds across the entire region.

A majority report that their physical health is good

In the SEMED region, 64% of respondents agree or strongly agree that their physical health is very good (Figure 5). This figure is higher than the averages for the transition region (52%) and Western Europe (57%).

Perhaps not surprisingly, across the entire region, younger and richer individuals are more likely to report being in good health than their counterparts in the lower and middle-income brackets. In addition, men report being somewhat healthier than women in the SEMED countries, except for Jordan (Figure 6).

Further reading

EBRD (2017) ‘Life in Transition: A Decade of Measuring Transition’.

Most read

Fair competition is needed to empower women economically in the Arab world

The participation rates of women in the labour market in Arab countries are the lowest in the world. This column argues that remedying the under-representation of women in the labour force is a social and economic imperative for the region. There are three dimensions for action to realise the potential of Arab women: amending laws and regulations; instilling fair competition in markets; and promoting the digital economy.

Recession without impact: why Lebanese elites delay reform

The survival of Lebanon’s political elites is highly dependent on the wellbeing of the economy. Why then do they delay necessary reform to avoid crisis? This column examines the role of politically connected firms in delaying much-needed economic stabilisation policies.

Competition laws: a key role for economic growth in MENA

Competition policy lacks the attention it deserves in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region characterised by monopolies and lack of market contestability. As this column explains, there are many questions about the extent of anti-competitive barriers facing new market entrants in the region. What’s more, MENA’s weak overall performance on competition is likely to be hindering economic growth and the path towards structural transformation.

Formidable challenges facing the Middle East require a sea change in economic policies

Weakening global growth, endemic conflicts and increased tensions within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – as well as emerging challenges such as climate change and rapid demographic shifts – are likely to have an adverse impact on the region’s economic, social and political stability in the coming years. This column outlines the policy responses that are needed to avert disaster.

Domestic demand and competition: a new development paradigm for MENA

A lack of competition in domestic and regional markets is holding back development in the Middle East and North Africa. This column argues that the region and the international community must ensure that barriers to market entry and exit are eliminated, and that independent regulatory bodies at the national and regional levels help to promote domestic demand as the main engine for sustainable and inclusive growth.

The future of Egypt’s population: opportunities and challenges

Egypt’s potential labour supply depends on the growth and changing composition of its working-age population. This column reports the latest data on labour supply and fertility rates, concluding that the country has a window of opportunity with reduced demographic pressures to try to address longstanding structural challenges for the labour market.

How import dependence could lead to corruption in MENA

Export-led development strategies have had little success in MENA countries; what’s more, instruments of earlier import-substitution strategies – such as state-owned enterprises, high tariffs and subsidies – have survived. As this column explains, these legacies have created crony-capitalist industries that have limited the level of competition in many sectors of the economy and furthered the region’s dependence on imports.

Effects of urbanisation on productivity and wages: evidence from Turkey

Are the substantial productivity gains associated with larger cities in developed countries similar for developing countries? This column provides evidence on urbanised economies in the non-Western world by focusing on Turkey, a country that has experienced fast urbanisation and a high rate of growth of the urban population.

Social security for young workers in Arab countries

Social security coverage of young workers in Arab countries is low – in part because many are employed in informal jobs; and in part because they do not see the value of the system. This column reports survey evidence on young workers’ attitudes towards participation in both social security and politics. It also explores policy reforms that might make access to social security universal for young workers.

Gender discrimination in small business lending: evidence from Turkey

Discrimination in access to financial services can prevent women from exploiting their entrepreneurial potential. This column reports on a ‘lab-in-the-field’ experiment to test for the presence of gender discrimination in small business lending in Turkey.