What do young Arabs want?

Stability, jobs and personal freedom, according to a poll of the region’s youth

In the Arab world, youth matters. More than half of the region’s population is under the age of 25, and it is this generation that will shape the direction of the Middle East.

The eighth annual Arab Youth Survey offers a snapshot of this future. The survey – carried out in early 2016 by Penn Schoen Berland, on behalf of Asda’a Burson-Marsteller – polled 3,500 young adults aged 18 to 24 in 16 countries, on topics ranging from fears of economic decline, to issues of security, to women’s rights.

From Saudi Arabia, to Morocco and Yemen, the resulting poll is a barometer for the aspirations of the MENA region’s more than 100 million teens and young adults. Here is what they had to say:

Opportunity cost

Fear of economic hardship is a common thread across the Arab world, where youth joblessness is the highest globally. Some 66 per cent of Arab youth admitted to concern over falling oil prices, up from 52 per cent in 2015. Despite this, 78 per cent believe they are still entitled to energy subsidies and any cuts should only affect expatriate residents. “For the Middle East as a whole, the economic prospects have dimmed significantly,” Christian Koch, director of the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center Foundation, said of the findings. 

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Stability first

There is growing disillusionment among young Arabs with the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. In 2016, only 36 per cent of young people said they felt the Arab world was in better shape following the upheaval, down from 72 per cent in 2012. Of the 16 countries in the poll, only Egypt was felt to be better positioned after its uprising.

More than half of teens and young adults agreed that maintaining stability was more important than promoting democracy. In 2011, 92 per cent of Arab youth said “living in a democracy” was their most cherished wish.

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Unfinished business

Two-thirds of young Arabs want their leaders to do more to improve their personal freedoms and to safeguard human rights, particularly for the women in their country. In Saudi Arabia – where the female labour force participation rate is just 20 per cent – 90 per cent of respondents said leaders should do more to aid women. 

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Fighting back

A chronic lack of jobs and economic hardship is seen to be the primary recruitment driver for ISIS. More than 20 per cent of Arab youth said widespread unemployment helped to draw people to ISIS, with youth in half the countries polled citing it as a bigger factor than religious extremism.

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But while half of teens and young people saw ISIS as the biggest problem currently facing the Middle East, the survey tracked a steep decline in support for its message. Just 13 per cent of young Arabs could imagine supporting the extremist group, down from 19 per cent in 2015. 

“Daesh exploits existing problems,” said Hassan Hassab, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “Daesh is a symptom of a growing disease that needs to be tackled, and not just the disease itself.”

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