Dimming outlook for youth across the Middle East

2018 survey finds young Arabs are hungry for progress - socially, politically and economically – with widening gap between rich and poorer countries.

A majority of young Arabs believe their countries have moved in the wrong direction over the past decade, according to an opinion survey, with youth in the Levant most pessimistic about the region. The annual Arab Youth Survey of people aged 18-to-24 across 16 Arab countries found 55 per cent of respondents believed the region had drifted off course following the Arab Spring revolutions and the rise of Daesh.

The negative outlook is most marked in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, where nearly nine out of 10 young Arabs said they were unhappy with the direction taken by their country.

This perception has deepened sharply over the past two years, which have seen the Levant grapple with a growing refugee crisis caused by the turmoil in Syria and Iraq.

In 2016, when asked the question: “Our best days are…” a majority of youth in the Levant picked the answer “ahead of us”. In the 12 months that followed, this fell to 32 per cent. In the latest survey, nearly three quarters opted for “behind us”.

By comparison, 91 per cent of GCC youth are happy with the progress made by their countries, with the majority expressing optimism for the future.

“We have come a long way from the heady days of Tahrir Square, when a new world seemed to be dawning,” wrote Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at John Hopkin’s Foreign Policy Institute, in an essay published alongside the report. “The Great Shift that the Arab Uprisings promised has instead led to a Great Drift.”

“Despair among the youth speaks volumes about the future of such an important but volatile region of the Arab world,” said Jordanian journalist Osama Al Sharif. “It explains how the Arab Spring was triggered by disenfranchised youth in its early days before it was hijacked by ideologically motivated opportunists.”


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Half of young Arabs surveyed said they felt the Middle East has lost its way. Photo: Celia Peterson.

The report also showed young Arabs have thrown their support behind Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his reformist agenda. Many see him – and his Saudi Vision 2030 plan – as factors that will shape the future of the Arab region over the next decade.

More than half of respondents believe the crown prince is taking Saudi Arabia in the right direction, while 86 per cent backed his crackdown on corruption.

Within Saudi itself, his popularity is even higher, with 97 per cent of young Saudis seeing him as a “strong leader”, and 92 per cent confident in his economic blueprint for the kingdom.

Among young GCC respondents, Prince Mohammed polled significantly higher than US President Donald Trump (25 per cent to Trump’s 16 per cent) as the person they believed would have the biggest impact on the region in the next decade; while among overall voters he scored higher than any other Arab leader.

It is a ringing endorsement of the crown prince’s ambitious agenda, which has included passing a law that allows Saudi women to drive. On this, too, young Arabs are overwhelmingly in favour, with 88 per cent of respondents claiming to approve of the move. Within Saudi itself, support runs at 81 per cent.

Despite this, Saudi youth still feel more needs to be done to support women’s rights, with 92 per cent of young men in the kingdom in favour of expanding them.

Part of the Prince Mohammed’s appeal to this demographic, said Turki bin Abdullah Aldakhil, general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, is his own youth, as well as his ability to frame himself as a political leader with sharp commercial nous.

“We know that around 60 per cent of people in the Arab region are below 30 years old,” he said, “which means that this leader is one of them. He thinks like them.

“The price of oil was $38 when he became crown prince, which means that he realised the importance of opening new doors and not relying on oil as the main source of revenue.”

"The levels of frustration seen among youth in North Africa and the Levant are unsustainable, both politically and morally.”

Afshin Molavi, senior fellow, John Hopkin’s Foreign Policy Institute.

In a shift that began in 2017, young Arabs are also increasingly seeing Russia as their ally over the US. A fifth cited Russia as their country’s biggest ally compared to only 13 per cent who chose the US.

In the Levant, 65 per cent of young people see the US as their enemy, while in the GCC more than half (55 per cent) make the claim. This marks a dramatic change from 2016, when the US polled 25 per cent against Russia’s 9 per cent.

Direct lines can be drawn to the Trump administration, with the majority of respondents claiming Trump’s election and presidency has had a negative effect on the region. Even so, despite young Arabs’ political antipathy, 17 per cent of those surveyed claimed the US to be the country they would most like theirs to emulate, after the UAE.

“For my generation,” said Tom Fletcher, visiting professor of international relations at NYUAD who also spoke at the launch of the survey, “as a British citizen, we all want to believe that America is that shining city on the hill. Many respondents do believe that the American people represent that, as a beacon of hope and liberty in the world.”

Looking ahead, the priorities for young Arabs are clear: as the digital revolution gathers pace – for the first time, more young Arabs are getting their news from social media than from television – countries must focus on combating terrorism, creating jobs, overhauling the education system and fighting corruption.

 “Creating jobs in an era increasingly driven by automation and robotics will be the challenge of our global era,” wrote Molavi. “But it is a challenge that must be met. The levels of frustration seen among youth in North Africa and the Levant are unsustainable, both politically and morally.”

“It’s not about just getting millions of kids into school,” said Fletcher. “It’s also about the quality of the education. We need to find a way of instilling that entrepreneurial spirit, that creativity in the region that will deliver the hundreds of thousands of 21st century jobs we need.” - PA