Article in Foreign Policy: Changing views of youth in the Arab world

Written by Ashraf Zeitoon as published in Foreign Policy.

There seems to be a consensus among foreign policy commentators and experts following the region that the Middle East is no place for optimists. However, a recent survey of Arab youth finds that the region's largest demographic segment (where 200 million Arabs are under 25 years of age) are in fact optimistic about the future.


Last week, ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller, the regional public relations firm based in Dubai, announced the findings of the Arab Youth Survey 2010. The survey, which has been described as the "largest ever study of its kind of the region's largest demographic", included 2,000 face-to-face interviews with Arab nationals and Arab expatriates between the ages of 18-24 in the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations, as well as in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. The study asked respondents a wide range of questions covering topics such as politics and economics, globalization and religion, among many others.

The survey's findings provide some distinctive glimpses into the thinking of the youth of the region, their aspirations and their concerns. One of the key findings, which runs contrary to the misconceptions about the region's youth, is the high level of optimism among them, where two-thirds surveyed believed that their countries are moving in the right direction. That trend was most evident in GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, where 98 percent of those surveyed believe that things in their country are moving in the right direction given the development over the last five years.  The overall high level of optimism among Arab youth is even more surprising considering that "the rising cost of living, shortage of affordable housing, and unemployment are the top three worries for Arab youth."  Admittedly, these high levels were not unanimous.  In Egypt and Lebanon, for example, only 26 percent and 22 percent respectively of those surveyed believe that their country is going in the right direction. Yet this lack of optimism in the country's direction could be attributed to specific political realities:  the stalled pace of reform in the case of Egypt, and the year's events that crippled political life in Lebanon before and after the parliamentary elections in June 2009.

Another surprising finding was that Arab youth prioritize living in a democratic country over everything else. 99 percent of those interviewed in the survey in Kuwait revealed that living in a democracy was either "very important" or "somewhat important", while Egypt followed with the second highest at 98 percent and the UAE was third at 96 percent.  

The findings provided another remarkable result where seven out of ten interviewed stated that the notion of global citizenship was "very" or "somewhat" important to them. This belief by a majority of the Arab youth surveyed, that they are part of the global system as fully engaged global citizens, contradicts "the common Western misperception of Arab youth as conservative and inward-looking".  It further goes a long way to debunking the stereotype, held in decision-making circles in Washington and other European capitals, that sees Arab youth as extremists or only concerned with their own countries. 

The survey's findings in other areas were less surprising and confirmed existing conceptions. For instance, it showed that religion is highly important to Arab youth, as around two-thirds of those interviewed said that religion defines them as a person, and another 62 percent choose religion as an influence on them and their outlook on life.

Another expected finding of the survey was that Arab youth generally admire political, religious and business leaders. When asked who they looked up to, 31 percent of those interviewed named religious leaders and 30 percent cited government leaders. This was in direct contrast to the answers by their peers in Western countries who cited 9 percent for religious leaders and just 5 percent for government leaders.

Despite the fact that survey findings could be interpreted in many ways along many different trend lines, the overall results still come as a breath of fresh air and provide valuable insight to policymakers in the region and in Washington in particular.  The poll is indicative that the youth of the region will be the main driver for change in the future.  A great majority of them are coming out and daring to dream of a better future for what Samir Kassir has called "the most wretched people in the world today."

Ashraf Zeitoon is a Public Affairs expert currently residing in Dubai. He served previously in senior positions in the Government of Jordan and Government of Dubai.