Young Arab men and women in the Middle East & North Africa, a cohort that has lived through the Arab Spring, the rise and fall of Daesh (ISIS) and the Covid-19 pandemic, are charting a new course as they contemplate their future, with a full 82 percent saying that promoting stability is more important than promoting democracy.
This is in stark contrast to the results of the 2009 Arab Youth Survey, in which 92% of young Arabs said living in a democratic country was their single-most important priority. A majority in the GCC (57%), 62% in North Africa and 72% in the Levant say that democracy in the region will never work.
These were some of the top findings of the 14th Annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, the largest study of the Middle East & North Africa’s largest demographic, its 200 million plus youth, unveiled today in Dubai.
ASDA’A BCW, the region’s leading communications consultancy, commissioned IDS Research & Consultancy to conduct face-to-face interviews with 3,400 Arab citizens aged 18 to 24 in 50 cities across 17 Arab states from May 13 to June 16, 2022. The sample was equally split between men and women.
Most of the so-called Arab Spring Generation, which entered adulthood after the momentous events of the early 2010s, say they have more freedoms today because of the protests and that their voice matters to their leadership. A full 59% of respondents say that women have equal rights.
Entrepreneurship on the rise
While 87% of Arab youth in the GCC say their government has the right policies to tackle the issues most important to young people, fewer than six in 10 in North Africa, and barely a fifth (21%) in Levant say the same. Against this backdrop, more young people say they would prefer to work for themselves or with their family (28%) than for the government or the private sector.
Attitudes towards religion
The uncertainty of young Arab men and women today is arguably most conspicuous in their attitudes towards religion. Overall, 41% say their religion is most important to their identity (a 7% increase compared to 2021), followed by their nationality (18%), their family or tribe (17%) and cultural heritage (7%), though the attachment to religion is less in the Levant (24%). And nearly three-quarters overall (70%) and a clear majority in all three regions express concern about the loss of traditional values and culture.
Most youth in all three regions also agree that preserving the region’s religious and cultural identity is more important than creating a more globalized society (65% say this overall). And 70% of youth in the GCC and 60% in the North Africa say that Sharia law should be the basis of their legal systems rather than civil or common law, though just over 4 in 10 in the Levant agree.
In contrast, 73% of Arab youth overall (78% in the GCC, 76% in North Africa and 65% in the Levant) say that religion plays too big a role in Middle Eastern life, and more than three-quarters (77%) say that religious institutions in the region require reform.
In a further sign of today’s shifting global allegiances, Arab youth now view China, Turkey and Russia as stronger allies of their countries than historical powerbrokers the U.S., the United Kingdom and France.
This year, three-quarters (78%) of Arab youth say China is either a strong ally or somewhat of an ally of their country, followed by Turkey (77%) and Russia (72%). The UK and France were the fourth-ranked strongest allies on 70%, followed by the United States (63%) in sixth.
Despite the thaw in relations heralded by the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, Arab youth remain steadfast in their opposition to Israel, with 88% saying the country is a strong enemy or somewhat of an enemy. Nearly two-thirds (62%) say the same of Iran.
Responsibility for the Ukraine crisis
Perhaps most surprising is the stance of Arab youth on the Ukraine conflict, with 31% saying they hold the U.S. and NATO primarily responsible for the conflict, while 18% say Russia is mostly to blame. More youth in the Levant (41%) and North Africa (29%) than other areas surveyed said that accountability rests with NATO and the U.S., while GCC youth are more divided on the issue, with 22% saying Russia is to blame and 21% saying NATO/the U.S. are at fault.
The U.S. continues to have by far the most influence on the Arab world, according to the research. More than a third (36%) say the U.S. has the most influence, compared with just 4% who say China is the most influential. After the U.S., Saudi Arabia (11%), Israel (9%), the UAE (7%), and Iran (7%) are said to be the most influential nations.
Support for U.S. disengagement from MENA
The fact that the U.S. still holds sway over the region could explain why most Arab youth want the country to play a less prominent role in MENA affairs. Three-quarters (73%) say they either strongly or somewhat support the disengagement of the U.S. from the Middle East, with the proportion of Arab youth taking this stance consistent across the GCC, Levant and North Africa.
Arab youth still consider Western nations role models
Arab youth may be wary of Western political influence in the region, but they clearly approve of Western countries as places to live. After the United Arab Emirates, voted for by 57% of young Arabs, the top five countries they say they would most like to live in are the United States (24%), Canada (20%), France (15%) and Germany (15%). And for the ninth straight the year, the U.S. is also the country most Arab youth say they would like their own to be like, again after the UAE (37%). Around a quarter (22%) of young Arabs say they would like their own country to emulate the U.S., followed by Canada (18%), Germany (14%), France (11%) and Turkey (11%).
More young Arabs consider emigration
Bleak employment opportunities are encouraging Arab youth to emigrate, with nearly half (45%) saying they are either actively trying to emigrate or have considered emigrating – up from 42% in 2020 and 33% last year. Canada (22%), Germany (19%) and the US (17%) are the three most popular destinations – the UAE is ranked fourth (14%).
Rise of TikTok
The popularity of Twitter and Facebook is declining, but the use of TikTok has more than doubled in the past three years, from 21% of youth saying they use it daily in 2020 to 50% today. TikTok is the fifth most popular social media app in terms of daily usage. WhatsApp ranks first, with 82% of Arab youth saying they use it daily, followed by Facebook (72%), Instagram (61%) and YouTube (53%).
Donna Imperato, Global CEO, BCW, said the findings of the 14th ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey open a window onto the shifting dynamics of the Arab world. “Once again, the ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey provides rich data for policymakers, businesses and communicators who want to better understand the hopes, attitudes and aspirations of the MENA’s region’s largest demographic.
“While this year’s study arguably paints the most enigmatic picture of Arab youth in its 14-year history, some characteristics of the so-called Arab Spring Generation are clear to see. They are united by their faith, their roots, their resourcefulness, and their demand for a fair chance to succeed,” Imperato added.
Sunil John, President, MENA, BCW and Founder of ASDA’A BCW, said the research presented further valuable insights into the mindset of young Arab men and women across MENA, and the issues decision makers must address if they are to make the most of their potential.
“These evidence-based insights inform governments, businesses, multilateral institutions and academics on policymaking and strategy. At ASDA’A BCW, we believe that to understand the Arab world, we must first understand the hearts and minds of its largest demographic, its youth. Once again, this year’s survey pinpoints critical themes in their outlook.
“The current generation of Arab youth are moving on from the divisions of the early 2010s but have yet to decide the direction they will take. They want more freedoms, but they prioritize stability. They seek reform but want to preserve their culture and traditions. They are optimistic and self-reliant, believing their best days lie ahead, but their expectations are high.”
The findings of this year’s ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey are presented under six distinct themes – My Identity, My Livelihood, My Politics, My Global Citizenship, My Lifestyle and My Aspirations.
They reveal a generation at a crossroads, confronted with the dilemma of preserving their traditional culture and values on the one hand, and embracing modernization and reform on the other.
To know more, please visit arabyouthsurvey.com