The majority of young Arabs believe their best days lie ahead of them, a major survey has found.
But while most of the region’s youth are optimistic about the future, they acknowledge they face many challenges in the present.
From an inability to save, struggles to cover their expenses and concerns about personal debt, most young nationals in the region have money problems, according to this year’s Arab Youth Survey - based on face-to-face interviews with 3,400 people aged 18-24.
The pandemic cost Middle East and North Africa (Mena) economies an estimated $227 billion last year.
The annual report, which has been running since 2008, found six in 10 Arab nationals between the ages of 18 and 24 are optimistic about the future.
And Emiratis are among the most hopeful, with 90 per cent agreeing with the statement, second to only those in Kuwait, 92 per cent of whom believe their best days are ahead.
Young Gulf nationals are the most optimistic, with those in the Levant the least optimistic. However, there has been a surge in positive thinking from Iraq to Yemen, Palestine, Libya, Jordan, Syria, and to a lesser extent, Lebanon, this year, with mostly double-digit increases in those agreeing their best days lie ahead.
In Syria, for example, just 12 per cent agreed with the statement last year, compared with 36 per cent in 2021.
That so many young people are hopeful at this moment is surprising, said Dr Jihad Azour, director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia Department.
"The good, somewhat unexpected, finding of the survey is that the pandemic has not shattered young Arabs’ confidence about a better future," he said.
"This greater optimism and positive forward-looking sentiment provide a unique window of opportunity to shape a transformational recovery by pushing ahead the long-awaited reforms needed to provide better opportunities to young people in the region."
In response, he called on policymakers to rethink the way growth should be engineered in the Arab region.
"In spite of the hardship experienced over the last year, Arab youth still believe in the prospect of an improvement of their lives: about half of respondents think they will have a better life than their parents, the highest in three years."
But not all countries share the same optimism, with the survey once again revealing disparities between respondents in the GCC, North Africa and Levant.
"Even if there is an improvement relative to last year, respondents in the Levant continue to hold relatively less-positive views about the future, reflecting the serious ongoing economic and social challenges faced by many countries in that region."
To succeed, he said, governments "should place the youth issue at the core of the structural reform agenda required to build more resilient, sustainable, and inclusive economies."
Here are some other key findings:
'Kitchen table' concerns
The overwhelming majority of young people surveyed are concerned about issues such as the rising cost of living (89 per cent), the pandemic (88 per cent), the quality of education (87 per cent) and unemployment (84 per cent).
Other concerns include the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; corruption/role of wasta; online data safety/privacy; income inequality; national economy and personal debt.
A fifth, 21 per cent, are able to save money regularly, and more than a third, 37 per cent, say they usually struggle to meet their expenses each month.
The remainder, 42 per cent, say they are able to pay their expenses but usually have no money left for savings.
More than two thirds, or 71 per cent, are concerned about personal debt, with the lowest number, at 61 per cent, in the GCC. Those in the Levant were most concerned, at 77 per cent.
Government jobs remain the biggest prize for 42 per cent across the Arab world, and for as many as 59 per cent in the Gulf.
But a small and increasing number, at 25 per cent, say they would like to work for themselves or their family, up from 16 per cent in 2019 and 23 per cent in 2020.
Fewer now say they would like to work in the private sector, at 23 per cent in 2021, compared with 28 per cent in 2019 and 24 per cent in 2020.
Significantly more young Arab women believe men have greater rights than women in 2021 compared with 2020, at 40 per cent versus 25 per cent.
Fewer women also believe men and women have the same rights at 51 per cent in 2021, down from 64 per cent in 2020. And just 9 per cent say women have more rights than men, down from 11 per cent in 2020.
Almost three quarters, or 72 per cent, believe their voice matters to their country’s leadership, with the highest rate in the UAE, at 100 per cent.
For the 10th year running, young Arabs said the UAE is the country they would most like to live in globally, and the Emirates is the nation they most want their own countries to emulate.
“The world needs lodestars, and the UAE has emerged as one,” said Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC.
“Every region also needs intense competition, and a leader of the pack. The UAE has clearly raised the bar across the region as it has emerged as a global economic hub for trade, transport, tourism and, increasingly, technology.”
The country’s growing economy and wide range of job opportunities are among the biggest pulls, they said.
Fewer young Arabs are considering emigration in 2021, at 33 per cent, compared with 42 per cent in 2020. Those living in North Africa and the Levant are the most likely to want to move, with those in the Gulf, and particularly the UAE, at 3 per cent, the least.
Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are seen as their country’s strongest allies, with the biggest enemies cited as Israel and Iran.
The US is considered to have the greatest influence in the region, followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Thirty-four per cent of young Arabs consider religion the most important factor in their identity, down from 40 per cent last year, followed by their family or tribe at 21 per cent, up from 19 per cent, and then their nationality at 18 per cent, up from 17 per cent in 2020.
Religion was considered least important to Emiratis, at 16 per cent.
But more than two thirds, or 68 per cent, want their religious institutions to reform. This is particularly true of young people in Oman, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
“What shapes the identity of Arab youth? For Arab youth, what drives their identity?” said Yousef Al Otaiba, Ambassador of the UAE to the US.
“Is it religion or nationality? Family and tribe or Arabic heritage? Politics, language, or beliefs? The answer is not uniform: Diversity within the Arab world yields an assortment of responses.
“In the UAE, the answer is more straightforward — and highly illuminating. Nationality is easily the overriding force that defines identity. This is so because we have built an open and inclusive society that embraces modernity, while valuing tradition, culture, and religion."