Bearing in mind that the Arab World is overwhelmingly dominated by young people who make up well over half the population (65% are under 30), understanding their views and attitudes is a must for anyone who aspires to have any understanding of its future. This has never been easy not least as detailed and comprehensive polling has been challenging, either due to conflict, lack of access or because of regimes where people are terrified to speak out such as in Syria.
The Arab Youth Survey has just published its 2019 survey, its 11th edition. It covers 15 Arab states and territories, after 3,300 face-to-face interviews of Arab Youth aged 18-24. It is not comprehensive but makes a significant contribution to the picture of the region.
Economic issues are a major concern, not a surprise given the massive levels of youth unemployment in many Arab countries, around twice the global average. The significant rise in the cost of living was cited as a major issue. Two-thirds of those surveyed were not satisfied that their governments had done enough on the economic front to help them. Not surprising given the differing economic situations, these figures were lower in GCC states but rose to 74% in the Maghreb and 83% in the Levant (Syrians could not be polled). Those polled wanted to see significant reforms.
Religion plays too big a role in the region according to 66%, up from 50% in 2015. Only 24% disagree with this. This finding has figured in early surveys and one wonders what the longer-term implications are. Will this lead to less adherence and less attraction to the messages of both extremist groups or those who push for a deep role of Islam in politics? One should be careful of believing that this means the Arab World is going secular any time soon, but it does indicate change is desired. It is also a challenge to the religious institutions in the region with 79% wanting to see them reform. This may be a sign that they are seen as inadequate, out of touch and failing to provide leadership.
Arab youth, not unnaturally, are desperate to see the conflicts that blight their region end. Eight years in Syria and Libya, over four in Yemen, whilst Iraq has barely known real peace for decades. Regarding Syria, 73% want the war to end now regardless of whether Bashar Al Assad remains in power or not. The most long lasting of all conflicts, the Israeli-Palestinian looks further away from resolution than ever before, with 79% of those surveyed saying they were concerned or somewhat concerned about this. Young Arabs also bemoaned the lack of unity in the region, and saw the sectarian rift between Sunnis and Shias as growing. It is not just the loss of life that is upsetting. Conflicts destroy economies, help spread extremism and inhibit any chance of real progress in not just the conflicted states but their neighbours. It also has led to a huge brain drain from the region something most countries can ill-afford. Fewer conflicts might mean greater resources for education.
Three out of every four would prefer to get educated abroad not being satisfied with the offering in their own country. A massive 78% say that they are not content with the quality of their schooling. Youth complain that the education does not prepare them for their future careers and to get the jobs they crave. Governments need to invest more in upgrading teacher skills and put more emphasis on critical thinking as well as lifelong learning.
The survey also covered the issue of drugs use, not a typical topic in such surveys in the Arab World. Young people believed that drugs were far too easily available and that their use was on the rise, above all in the Levant. The Egyptian authorities say that the rate of drug addiction has reached 10% of the population. Peer pressure is cited as the principle driver of drugs use.
Perhaps related to this and conflict, the survey also dared to tackle the taboo issue of mental health for which it must be credited. Almost a third said they knew people with mental health issues, but overwhelmingly access to quality mental health care was challenging. Half of those polled said that the stigma regarding mental health was still an issue. With so many conflicts and forms of insecurity, the region can ill afford to keep ignoring this time bomb.
The Arab Youth Survey paints a portrait of young Arabs desperate for change and reform in an ever-uncertain region. Their desires seem understandably typical of their peers across the world – greater security, access to education and jobs. The question is whether despite these strong desires and aspirations, governments and authorities can deliver the considerable reforms and changes of approach required. Hopefully, decision makers will look at these findings seriously and try to find solutions.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.