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OPINION: The Arab world is changing fast – here’s how land data can help policymakers keep up

by Shahd Mustafa | Prindex
Monday, 22 February 2021 12:30 GMT

A view of buildings in Cairo, Egypt January 14, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One in four people in the region feel insecure in their land and property rights

Shahd Mustafa is the Middle East and North Africa Coordinator for Prindex

From revolution and conflict to shifting demographics and women’s empowerment – big change is underway in the Arab world, much of it linked to questions of land. Perceptions data is a quick and effective way to understand the impact this change is having and map a smart way forward that meets the needs of people today.

A new Prindex study, which will be presented at this week’s Second Arab Land Conference, finds that one in four people in the region feel insecure in their land and property rights – that’s 52 million people across the 13 countries surveyed. Because Prindex’s global data is fully comparable, we know that tenure insecurity is a major problem in the region – only sub-Saharan Africa has a higher regional rate of insecurity.

Our global data is a starting point, not an end. It casts a wide net, illuminating potential problem areas that can be explored through more targeted studies. Here are some hints that emerge from our data on how actors could respond to change happening in the region:

Conflict and demographic changes

Land and conflict go hand in hand – so much so that we’re currently working on incorporating tenure data in models that predict the outbreak of conflict. The Arab region has seen many conflicts over the last half century, events that have been significant drivers of (and have been driven by) tenure insecurity. Prindex data finds that countries with ongoing conflicts, such as Libya (29%) and Iraq (29%), have rates of insecurity higher than the regional average (24%). Countries that host large numbers of refugees like Jordan (40%) have even higher rates.

Prindex data also shows very high rates of insecurity among 26-46 year olds, the group that came of age during the demographic ‘youth bulge’ of around 2005-10. The resulting high competition for jobs and housing may have contributed to the Arab Spring, and has left this generation still reeling with insecurity. As another youth bulge is on the horizon, providing affordable housing and jobs will be as essential for peace and stability in the region as it is for tenure security.

Rapid urbanisation

Much of the region is already highly urbanised – the discovery of oil in the 70s and subsequent economic boom pushed people into urban centres in Gulf countries, creating cities of two halves – with skyscrapers and fancy real estate on one side, and cheap tenements for migrant workers on the other. Elsewhere, countries like Egypt and Jordan have concentrated populations in vast cities like Cairo and Amman.

The overall rate of change has been so fast that land systems have been unable to keep up. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Prindex data finds that renters in urban areas in Gulf countries and Jordan feel especially insecure. More detailed studies on perceived tenure security in specific cities, or specific urban neighbourhoods, could highlight the needs of vulnerable populations in these areas and help focus the right support.

Women’s empowerment

Women’s rights are a growing issue in a region known for its unequal treatment of women. Prindex data paints a complicated picture on gender, with more men reporting feeling insecure than women in some locations. We believe this may be caused by the particular vulnerability of male migrant workers in some countries, and by the fact that many women are excluded from financial decision-making in the home, and so may be unaware of any threats to their living situation.

What we do know is that women are much more likely than men to fear eviction when faced with divorce or death of a spouse. In Egypt and Morocco, women are six times more likely to feel insecure than men in this regard. The link between tenure insecurity and divorce suggests that some women may be trapped in abusive relationships for fear of losing their home. The beauty of our methodology (unlike traditional head of household surveys) is that it captures an equal number of men and women and could be used to dig deeper into this and a host of other gender-related land issues.

We believe that perception data matters, because if someone trusts that they can stay on their land for the long term, they invest in improving their homes, farms and small businesses. If a woman believes she is secure in her land rights, she will have more confidence to act and make decisions that are good for her and her family.

We also know that many Arab countries lack the data they need to navigate the enormous changes underway. Surveys to gather perceptions could be one fast, cost-effective solution to light the path ahead.