A breakfast of fava beans with garlic; a day spent working in the fields; late afternoon chatting with friends over a board game; home in the evening to a mud-brick house. For the fellahin of Upper Egypt, life has changed little since the time of the pharaohs, let alone in the past 60 years.

By comparison, young inhabitants of a city such as Riyadh would hardly recognise the world their grandparents were born into. An adobe-walled desert station has been transformed into a sprawling, car-congested metropolis in just a few decades. Over the same period, the population of the Saudi capital has grown from about 100,000 to more than 6.5 million, at least a third of whom are from as far away as Indonesia and the Philippines.

As diverse as they might seem, the communities of the Middle East have experienced some changes in common since the 1950s. Refrigeration, antibiotics and clean water, though by no means universal or reliably supplied, are now widespread. Infant mortality rates are lower; life expectancy has soared. Horizons, for some poorer communities, have broadened. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian labourers, who would otherwise have faced a life in the fields like their ancestors, now send money home from more lucrative jobs in the Gulf.

Rapid urbanisation

Some broad societal trends can also be observed. The first is rapid urbanisation. Even in Egypt, where agricultural communities still make up as much as 60 per cent of the population, the 20th century saw a huge migration of farm workers from the Nile Delta and the south into cities such as Cairo and Alexandria in search of better paying jobs and a higher standard of living. Riyadh and Jeddah, similarly, have drawn in families from rural areas of Saudi Arabia as well as opportunistic workers from Asia and the wider Middle East.

Urban growth is not an easy process to control. In modern China, entire dormitory cities have been built to accommodate a mass influx of labour from the provinces. Cities such as Cairo, Riyadh and Tehran have adopted a similar approach by encouraging the growth of satellite communities in an attempt to relieve the stress on their urban centres, which are typically gridlocked for hours every day.

Youth demographic

Population growth has compounded the pressure. Between 1950 and 2000, the population of the Middle East grew nearly fourfold, from about 90 million to almost 350 million, with fairly uniform rates of growth recorded from Morocco to Iran. While that surge has begun to subside in certain countries, the regional demographic is overwhelmingly youthful, with about 60 per cent of the population yet to reach the age of 25. In other words, the full brunt of high birth rates on everything from public services and infrastructure to jobs and basic resources has still to be felt.

Questions of quality become moot when there are few rewarding jobs to nurture school leavers

Add to these demands the rising aspirations of young people. To the governments of the 20th century, education was seen as a signature of a modern society. As a result, access to schooling is now comparatively high across the region, with almost universal access to primary education and more than two-thirds of children enrolled at the secondary level. Between 1965 and 2003, Middle Eastern governments spent an average of about 5 per cent of their GDP on education; the current figure for Saudi Arabia is 5.6 per cent, on an exact par with the US and the UK.

But education in itself is no panacea. Questions of quality become moot when there are few rewarding jobs to nurture school leavers. Unemployment and, in more affluent Gulf states under-employment, disproportionately affect the region’s youth. Bureaucracy, corruption and the heavy hand of the police state make life for young adults all the more intolerable. Access to global media and the internet only help to contrast their situation with peers elsewhere in the world.

The deputy secretary-general for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development, Mari Kiviniemi, summed up these problems in a warning to governments in February this year. “We are seeing an alarming scale of youth unemployment, the highest in the world,” she said. “Young people express lower levels of trust in government than their parents. Yet the Arab youth are more educated and connected than ever and represent one of the biggest assets of the region.”

There is no room for complacency. The wave of uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring dislodged leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and sparked conflicts across the region that continue six years later. Yet the causes of disaffection remain largely unaddressed. Some governments appear to have wilfully learned the wrong lessons, repealing political and social reforms and using protests as an excuse to stamp out dissent. The most extreme example is Syria, where peaceful demonstrations turned into violent confrontation and ultimately a civil war that has claimed more than 400,000 lives.

Promise of prosperity

In the absence of meaningful elections and political freedoms, most governments base their legitimacy on the promise of prosperity. In the case of the tribal monarchies of the Gulf, oil wealth has helped to secure this social contract. The poorer republics of the region, many of them saddled with the legacy of populist promises made in the 1950s and 1960s, have had a harder time meeting expectations as the soaring cost of public sector wages and subsidies has overburdened their economies.

Even the mildest changes can prove explosive

Economic reform is the obvious recourse, yet even the mildest changes – reducing subsidies, for example – can prove explosive in societies where many people live close to the bread line. Rising food prices are often cited as a contributing factor to the unrest of the past decade. Most recently, an attempt by the Egyptian government in March to pare back bread subsidies sparked demonstrations across the country.  

In the past 60 years, the biggest changes in government have usually been accompanied by spasms of violent upheaval, from the Iranian revolution through foreign invasion to the Arab Spring. The question is whether less disruptive forms of progressive change are possible. One testing ground will be the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia, among others, continues with a highly cautious experiment in political liberalisation. Municipal council elections held in 2015 marked not only the first time women were allowed to vote in the kingdom, but also the first time they were able to run for office.

On a street by the Giza Zoo in Cairo is a statue called Egypt’s Awakening. Dating from 1928, only a few years after independence, the granite carving depicts a peasant woman resting one hand on a sphinx and dramatically removing her veil with the other. Around her every day pass thousands of women resolutely dressed in hijab. It is a reminder that, for many societies in the Middle East, the history of the 20th century was not an inevitable march towards liberal, secular democracy and universal suffrage. Will this century prove any different?