Surveys picking the minds of Arab youth are always interesting and controversial. Unfortunately there aren’t enough of those and when the results of independent and credible polls are published there is little official response to them. Why Arab youth? Because, those between 15 and 24 represent 20 to 30 per cent of the entire Arab population and in some countries, like Jordan, those who are under 30 years of age make up more than 60 per cent of the kingdom’s population.
Youth represent the future of any country. They are the building blocks for development programmes aiming at boosting economic growth and improving socioeconomic indices. But their voices are seldom heard. The post-colonial Arab societies remain largely patriarchal. Women suffer from gender inequality. Their representation in the workforce remains low and when it comes to unemployment rates they are in the top brackets.
For a region as young as ours, youth appear to have no voice in deciding their future. They need to be empowered and they need to be understood in a globalised environment that has widened the generational gaps. Arab Youth Survey and other studies have underlined common factors that are shared across borders and others that are typical to one country or sub-region. Earlier this year the results of the Arab Youth Survey revealed interesting trends that need the immediate attention of governments concerned. Those polled expressed opinions regarding religion, politics, social ailments, education, social media and others. Reactions varied but there was consensus on many issues like the need to end regional conflicts, create jobs and improve the quality of education.
Authorities must take these polls seriously and tweak national strategic programmes so that they respond to what millions of Arab youth demand. One recently published survey was carried out for BBC News Arabic by the research network Arab Barometer. The project interviewed 25,000 people face-to-face in 10 countries and the Palestinian territories. Responses covered a wide range of issues including religion, women’s rights, honour killings, politics, perception of Israel and emigration.
The latter was the most interesting and disturbing: it found out that the proportion of citizens wanting to emigrate has increased, between 2013 and 2018, in six countries. They are Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. For example, for Jordan the ratio jumped from 20 per cent in 2013 to more than 40 per cent in 2018. The economy being the main driver, in every place questioned, research suggested at least one in five people were considering emigrating. Such outcome should raise red flags in some countries and is an indicator of how mainly young people feel about the future of their country. And yet we have not seen signs to indicate that governments are stepping in to restore confidence and reassure the population at large and the youth in particular.
A study in 2010 by the United Nations Development Programme suggested that the population of the Arab countries has nearly tripled since 1970, climbing from 128 million to 359 million. The Arab region is expected to have 598 million inhabitants by 2050.
A study by the World Politics Review last year concluded that demographic factors were largely behind the youth-driven unrest. It suggested that a quarter of Egyptians between the ages of 18 and 29 remain unemployed, and an increasing number of young people are entering a labour market that is ill-equipped to absorb them. A 2015 study by the Oxford Business Group suggested that the MENA region will be most affected in the coming years because it has the largest youth population in the world, with more than half of residents under the age of 25. MENA also has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate, standing at 27.2 per cent in the Middle East and 29 per cent in North Africa.
These surveys underline the fact that the Arab world is not a homogeneous entity. In fact the socioeconomic gaps are widening. But its stability as a whole is interwoven. What happens in the MENA region directly affects the Gulf region.
What is needed is a comprehensive new approach to viewing, appreciating and reacting to the Arab world’s social and economic ills. Arab youth and their concerns represent the core of what the region as a whole should be dealing with and incorporating in its individual developmental strategies. Failing to address these concerns collectively will only delay future waves of instability and unrest.
—Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.