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Arab Youth See Region Adrift, Survey Finds

Arab youth believe that defeating extremism, creating good jobs, improving education and cracking down on government corruption are the most important issues in the Arab world as a region, according to the results of a recent survey. But a significant majority also believe that the region has drifted off course in the past decade.

This sentiment is felt most strongly by young people in the Levant, the poll, from the public relations firm Asda’a Burson-Marsteller, found.

That pessimism is a significant finding of the poll, said Chris Doyle, director of the London-based Council for Advancing Arab-British Understanding. He suggested that it stems from “the failure of efforts to end the conflict in Syria and the acute lack of effective governance in that region.”

Asda’a Burson-Marsteller, which is based in Dubai, released highlights of the tenth edition of its annual poll of Arab youth earlier this month. The survey collected the opinions of 3,500 young men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 in 16 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The report’s top finding is that 55 percent of Arab youth over all believe the region drifted off course during the past ten years, a decade marked by both the Arab Spring uprisings and the rise of the extremist group Da’esh, also known as Islamic State.

But there were sharp differences within the region in how young people responded to the question, “Would you say that over the past 10 years, things in the Arab world as a region have moved in the right direction or in the wrong direction?”

Nearly 90 percent of young people surveyed in Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine said things had moved in the wrong direction. (No interviews were conducted in Syria because of the ongoing war there.)

In contrast, well over half (57 percent) of youth in the six Arab Gulf countries held the opposite view, that the region had moved in the right direction over the past ten years.

Youth in the six North African nations represented in the survey were more evenly divided, with about half responding each way.

Other key findings from the survey include:

  • Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, is popular among Arab youth. “There is a deep and broad desire across these societies for reform,” wrote Bernard Haykel in a white paper that offers experts’ commentaries on the survey’s results, and youth across the region see the crown prince “as the most engaged agent in its transformation.”
  • Arab youth overwhelmingly welcome the move to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia, but say more must be done to advance women’s rights throughout the region. For instance, “there needs to be greater advancements in rights related to work and travel,” Mina Al-Oraibi, editor-in-chief of the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, wrote in her commentary.
  • Most young Arabs say they get their news on social media (63 percent) rather than via television (51 percent). Of television channels, CNN is trusted over Al Jazeera.
  • Russia is seen as a more reliable political ally than the United States. “Even though many young Arabs strongly disapprove of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad, Russia has created the impression of being a strong and decisive power,” wrote Hussein Ibish.
  • Hopes for change kindled by the Arab Spring have mostly faded away, with the conspicuous exception of Tunisia. “The Great Shift that the Arab Uprisings promised has instead led to a Great Drift,” Afshin Molavi wrote in another section of the white paper.

The survey was conducted for Asda’a Burson-Marsteller by the Washington-based political polling firm PSB Research using face-to-face interviews and a questionnaire consisting of more than 180 questions. The survey’s conclusions were presented in Dubai on May 8 and live-streamed on social media.

Sunil John, founder of Asda’a Burson-Marsteller, said in a news release that the Arab Youth Survey “provides governments and businesses with actionable insights to make more relevant and effective decisions during times of great change.” While highlights of the survey are published in its white paper, access to the full data set is reserved for the company’s clients.

Chris Doyle, of the Council for Advancing Arab-British Understanding, welcomed the survey’s findings, but warned of possible unconscious bias skewing the results. This effect might be seen, for example, in the findings of high support for Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and the finding that the United Arab Emirates was the country most Arab youth wanted to live in.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were each represented by 300 respondents in the survey.  Other countries were represented by 200 respondents, with the exceptions of Iraq (250) and the Palestinian territories (150). The declared margin of error was plus or minus 1.65 percent, the firm reported.

“It would be helpful if the full results and data were published, for researchers in the region and internationally to study,” Doyle said.


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