Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Khalid Abu-Ismail

Founding contributors

Khalid Abu-Ismail
United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia

Khalid Abu-Ismail is Chief of Economic Development and Poverty Section, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and formerly Macroeconomics and Poverty Policy Adviser with UNDP’s Regional Center for Arab States. He provides policy advice and policy oriented research on topics related to Human Development, Poverty, Inequality and Economic Growth. He received his Doctor of Philosophy in Economics from New School for Social Research, New York. Abu-Ismail is an ERF Policy Affiliate.

Content by this Author

Fighting poverty: innovative policy lessons from the second Arab Multidimensional Poverty Report

Poverty is a complex and multidimensional policy challenge. Understanding the interconnected causes and effects of poverty is a critical first step for policy-makers trying to improve people’s lives. This column presents an updated model for measuring deprivation levels in the Arab region, and proposes a series of policy suggestions to improve economic and social outcomes. Put simply, any reforms in the region should be based on a joined-up policy approach, built on an understanding of the interplay between different aspects of poverty and inequality.

Public employment in Arab countries: A Reassessment

In Arab countries, there are concerns that the public sector is too large. This column shows that the extent to which this is the case depends on how exactly the labour force is measured. Beyond this, focusing on size alone is to miss the point, at least in part. Policy-makers in the Arab region should instead focus on the quality of public services, ensuring they deliver their intended goals at a good price. Concerns over the size of the public sector are of course important, but not as much as ensuring that efficient and effective public services are available to all those who need them. This blogpost is based on a chapter in a book under preparation edited by Samir Makdisi and Raimundo Soto on Conflict and Post Conflict Transitions to Peace Building in War Afflicted Arab Countries

The World Development Challenges Report: A new measurement framework

The global Development Challenges Index, which has just been launched, measures shortfalls in the achievements of developing countries in three key and interdependent areas: quality-adjusted human development, environmental sustainability and good governance. This column introduces the new framework and its main findings.

Governance is the key development challenge for Arab countries

A new Development Challenges Index measures shortfalls in the achievements of developing countries in three areas: quality-adjusted human development, environmental sustainability and good governance. This column outlines what it reveals about Arab countries – and the implications for policy-making in the region.

Weak pass-through of growth to household incomes in Arab countries

Arab countries are unlikely to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, even under the best-case scenario of a full ‘pass-through’ of national growth to household incomes. This column presents new projections for pass-through and poverty trends in both the region and the world as a whole. Lower rates of pass-through suggest the importance of incorporating distributional policies into the design of national poverty reduction plans.

Wealth concentration rocketing in Arab countries after Covid-19

The concentration of the Arab region’s wealth in the hands of just a small percentage of its residents should be a wake-up call for a renewed regional and national policy dialogue on inclusive growth strategies – and for immediate policy action. This column argues for revisiting governance frameworks and macroeconomic policies to enact pro-poor fiscal policies that are supported by modest annual contributions from the wealthiest decile. This would reduce wealth concentration and support dwindling fiscal space for social protection and development expenditure in many Arab countries.

Conflicts hindering development in the Arab region

Conflicts in the Arab region over the past decade have had a devastating impact, giving rise to illegal migration flows and increased poverty. As this column outlines, some countries have experienced a drastic reduction in living standards and reversals of economic and social progress that will affect multiple generations. The collapse, fragmentation or weakness of state institutions in many places has long-term security, humanitarian and development implications.

Getting the private sector to generate decent jobs in Arab countries

Formal private sector firms in Arab countries suffer from four overlapping labour market challenges: job creation, inequality, productivity and technology. As this column explains, proposed policy responses need to rise to the enormity of these challenges. They also need to take account of short-term interventions to address Covid-19, as well as medium and long-term solutions to structural problems.

Poverty in Arab countries: the likely impact of Covid-19

The economic slowdown caused by Covid-19 is expected to affect jobs, incomes, businesses and the flow of trade and remittances worldwide and across the Arab region. This column reports that an additional 16 million people are expected to be poor in 14 Arab countries as a consequence of the pandemic. Unfortunately, this is not a new trend.

The case for a solidarity tax to close the poverty gap in Arab countries

High rates of poverty coupled with high concentration of wealth in Arab countries indicate the need for stronger civic solidarity and the shared responsibility of the public, the private sector and the state for lifting the downtrodden out of poverty. This column makes the case for taxing top wealth to close the poverty gap and promote civic unity.

Rethinking inequality in Arab countries: the latest research evidence

In an effort to explain and find policy responses to the Arab Spring, there has been considerable focus on inequality. This column summarises the findings of a major research project on the issue.

Arab countries are caught in an inequality trap

Conventional wisdom, based mainly on surveyed household income distribution statistics, suggests that inequality is generally low in Arab countries. At the same time, little attention has been devoted to social inequalities, whether in terms of outcomes or opportunities. This column introduces a forthcoming report, which offers a different narrative: based on the largest research project on the subject to date and covering 12 Arab countries, the authors argue that the region is caught in an inequality trap.

Falling rents should make way for institutional reforms in Arab states

Can the development prospects of the Arab countries be separated from the natural resource endowments that have been shaping their economies for so long? This column outlines the likely downward trajectories of per capita natural resource rents to 2030 – and the sense of urgency that those numbers should bring to discussions of the need for institutional reform.

MENA Generation 2030: Prospects for a demographic dividend

UNICEF’s new report, MENA Generation 2030, focuses on ‘investing in children and youth today to secure a prosperous region tomorrow’. This column discusses the prospects for a ‘demographic dividend’ in the region with the growing share of the working age population in the total population. The authors explore the barriers that impede realisation of the potential benefits and the policy actions that need to be implemented urgently. As the report underlines, the time to act is now.

Post-conflict macroeconomic challenges: Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen

Inflows of overseas development assistance are typically helpful for countries seeking to rebuild in the immediate aftermath of a civil conflict – but in the longer term, they can pose serious macroeconomic challenges. This column summarises the research evidence on the effects and effectiveness of aid, and draws lessons for Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Fiscal policy to help escape MENA’s low productivity trap

Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are locked in a ‘low productivity trap’ despite shifts in employment towards non-farm and non-oil sectors . This column makes the case for transformational changes in the macro-fiscal policy orientation to generate millions of new job opportunities for the growing educated youth and to improve the labour share of income to reduce poverty.

Extreme poverty in Arab states: a growing cause for concern

Extreme poverty is rising in Arab states and the outlook is concerning. This column outlines the latest figures and the implications for policies to promote inclusive and sustainable development in the region.

Galal Amin and the Egyptian middle class

A sense of ‘defeat’ among the Egyptian middle class was the main motivation for the uprising of 25 January 2011. In a tribute to economics professor Galal Amin, who passed away last month, this column explores what his analysis would suggest lay behind that feeling. The main culprit is the pursuit of stabilisation at any cost: macroeconomic stability rarely translates into more investment and better-quality jobs; liberalisation typically leads to crony capitalism and greater inequality; and it is the poor and the middle class who experience the pain.

Time to rethink inequality in Arab states

There are many gaps in our understanding of trends in both money metric inequality and multidimensional inequality in Arab states. This column previews a forthcoming report that will explore fundamental questions: why study inequality; with what theoretical approaches and measurement frameworks; and inequality between whom?

Tax reform for equity and fiscal space in middle-income Arab countries

Arab countries have systematically low tax collection rates relative to the size of their economies. What’s more, with rising military expenditures and lower oil prices, the public budgets of the oil-rich states are coming under growing pressure. This column argues that the time is right for region-wide fiscal policy reforms that enact fair and progressive taxation systems.

Multidimensional poverty in the poorest parts of MENA: agenda for action

A new measure of household poverty in the Arab countries provides the basis for tailored solutions across the region. This column reports the key findings of the first Arab Multidimensional Poverty Report and outlines an agenda for policy action.

An agenda for reducing income inequality in the Arab countries

What can be done to reduce income inequality in Arab countries? This column explores issues of measurement as well as potential policy measures. It concludes by calling for a new multipurpose pan-Arab survey that would allow for an evidence-based decision-making process on the impact of proposed policies on poverty and inequality.

Khalid Abu-Ismail on the impact of COVID-19 on poverty and food insecurity in the Arab region

The Arab region is expected to be hard hit by the coronavirus crisis with rising poverty and food insecurity. Khalid Abu-Ismail outlines four policy responses.

Most read

Egypt’s care economy needs to address deteriorating working conditions

A robust and high-quality care economy is critical for supporting women’s employment – as both an employer of women and a mechanism for redistributing unpaid care work to the market. Yet in Egypt, despite national goals of expanding care services, employment in the sector has been shrinking, while becoming increasingly privatised. As this column reports, care jobs have also experienced worsening conditions of work, including reduced formality and the emergence of a pay penalty for care workers.

Unemployment among young women in GCC countries

The average rate of unemployment among young women in the high-income countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is far higher than the equivalent for young men. This column reports new evidence on the extent to which flexible labour markets, in the context of a generous social contract, can reduce female youth unemployment rates in the region.

Boosting trade through flexible rules of origin in preferential agreements

Rules of origin are critical components of preferential trade agreements designed to stop products coming in under insufficient transformation or through the partner that applies the lowest tariff. But in practice, these rules are often needlessly complex, undoing the benefits of market access associated with trade agreements. This column reports research showing that the adoption of more flexible product-specific rules of origin within preferential agreements would give a significant boost to global trade.

Challenges of GCC investment in the energy transition

The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have identified the energy transition as a crucial area of growth and are investing heavily in a diverse array of projects. However, as this column explains, the region faces a number of challenges in making a success of these investments, most notably its current dependence on fossil fuels, a lack of infrastructure and technical expertise, the high upfront costs, and geopolitical tensions.

The decline of social insurance in Egypt: directions for reform

The longstanding challenge for the Egyptian economy of providing its workers with decent, formal, socially insured jobs has become even more difficult. As this column explains, informality has been rising rather than falling, with a substantial reduction in social insurance coverage for the employed since the late 1990s. Reforms are needed to reverse this decline.

Social insurance in Egypt: between costly formality and legal informality

The rates of participation of Egyptian workers in contributory social insurance has continued to decline, even during times when the country has had positive annual growth rates. This column discusses key institutional elements in the design of the current social insurance scheme that have contributed to the growing gap in coverage, particularly the scheme’s cost and eligibility requirements.

Jordan: navigating through multiple crises

Jordan’s real GDP per capita is today no higher than it was 40 years ago. While external factors have undoubtedly had an adverse effect on the country’s economic outcomes, weak macroeconomic management and low public spending on investment and the social sectors have also played a substantial role. This column explores what can be done to reduce high public debt, accelerate private sector development and enhance social outcomes.

Making trade agreements more environmentally friendly in the MENA region

Trade policy can play a significant role in efforts to decarbonise the global economy. But as this column explains, there need to be more environmental provisions in trade agreements in which developing countries participate – and stronger legal enforcement of those provisions at the international level. The MENA region would benefit substantially from such changes.

Egypt and Iraq: amenities, environmental quality and taste for revolution

The Middle East and North Africa is a region marked by significant political turbulence. This column explores a novel dimension of these upheavals: the relationship between people’s satisfaction with, on one hand, the amenities to which they have access and the environmental quality they experience, and, on the other hand, their inclination towards revolutionary actions. The data come from the World Value Survey collected in 2018 in Egypt and Iraq.

Iran’s globalisation and Saudi Arabia’s defence budget

How might Saudi Arabia react to Iran's renewed participation in global trade and investment? This column explores whether the expanding economic globalisation of Iran, following the lifting of nuclear sanctions, could yield a peace dividend for Saudi Arabia, consequently dampening the Middle East arms competition. These issues have attracted increased attention in recent times, notably after a pivotal agreement between the two countries in March 2023, marking the resumption of their political ties after a seven-year conflict.