The findings of this year’s Arab Youth Survey, conducted annually since 2008 by ASDA’A BCW, a Dubai-based PR agency and published earlier this month, present some disturbing indicators compounded by the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey covered 17 Arab countries, conducting 4000 interviews of Arab youth, split equally between males and females, in the 18 to 24 age group — it is the only poll of its kind that delivers crucial findings about what half of the Arab population, almost 200 million, think, believe in and hope for in the MENA region.
In presenting this year’s findings, Sunil John, president of ASDA’A BCW, wrote that “several of our surveys did predict future events, including the Arab Spring. The continued discontent on the street among young Arabs — especially their sense of economic, political and social marginalisation..” Aside from the importance of delving into the mindset of an important demographic component of Arab societies, the survey provides ample data that no government can do without while drawing future strategies and correcting current trajectories. It is an understatement to say that Arab youth make up the critical mass that determines the future path, politically, economically and socially, that each Arab country is destined to take.
With almost 30 per cent youth unemployment in the MENA region, one of the highest rates in the world, it is no wonder that a majority of young Arabs feel desperate about the future. One of the most disturbing findings of the survey is that more than four in 10 people aged 18-24 have considered emigrating from their home countries. About 42 per cent of all Arab youth surveyed had considered emigrating to another country, with 15 per cent actively trying to leave. This was evident especially in the Levant region, compared to the GCC countries, where the rate of young people hoping to emigrate jumped to more than 60 per cent.
Even before the pandemic most Arab countries were still recovering from the seismic events that accompanied the 2011 Arab Spring. The issues that triggered the Arab Spring remain the same: poor leadership, rampant corruption and deteriorating economy. The COVID-19 has amplified the state of despair that young Arabs are feeling. The pandemic has had a dire effect on local economies across the region. In most Arab countries, especially in the Levant and North Africa, unemployment rates have spiked and the category that was most affected is youth. With unemployment come poverty, crime and social instability. Lebanon today is a stark example of a perfect storm where a political impasse, deepening an economic free fall amid wide corruption and mismanagement, has driven a majority of young Lebanese to actively seek emigration. According to the survey’s findings economic factors and corruption are the two strongest drivers of emigration among Arab youth.
With general disregard to the suffering of youth it is no wonder that a majority of young Arabs support antigovernment protests as is the case in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria. In war-torn Libya more than 85 per cent of youth surveyed expect antigovernment protests to break out. Drivers for protests include bad governance, corruption, lack of social justice, lack of political reforms, unfair taxation and lack of human rights, among others.
An alarming 77 per cent of all Arab youth report there is government corruption in their country. This is probably the single most dangerous malaise that constitutes a major driver for public despair, anger, extremism and readiness to disengage and leave. Iraq is a clear example of widespread and institutional corruption that has alienated the youth and driven many to embrace extremism.
Aside from corruption, dire economic conditions are seen as a crucial factor for Arab youth discontent. Between 2015 and 2020 those who suffered from the burden of personal debt had risen from 15 per cent to 35 per cent. About 34 per cent of Arab youth in the Levant described their current personal financial situation as pretty bad and poor. One-third of young Arabs say their household debt has increased since the pandemic. The COVID-19 effects on local economies are yet to be determined and its reverberations will be felt for many years to come. A number of vital sectors that usually employ the young, like tourism, aviation and services have been damaged as a result of the pandemic. While some governments, especially in the GCC, have been able to reduce and contain the negative effects of the pandemic, others have not.
A staggering 87 per cent of those surveyed say they are concerned about unemployment while 51 per cent say they are not confident in their national government’s ability to deal with unemployment.
There is a wealth of data to be examined in the findings of the survey. Arab governments will do the right thing by looking into such data in order to reset and adjust policies. Governments that ignore what the most active sector of the population think and believe in will continue to move in the wrong direction. The general picture is not promising and is a cause for concern but understanding the problems and acting accordingly is a small step in the right direction.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.