The majority of young Arabs believe democracy would never work in the Middle East, a major regional survey has revealed.
Nearly two thirds, 64 per cent, of those who were interviewed for the 2022 Arab Youth Survey, said they believed democracy would be incompatible with the region.
Those in the Levant were most likely to share this view, with 72 per cent agreeing. This is a region mired in conflict and polarising political factions.
The survey was of 3,400 people aged 18 to 24 in the Middle East and North Africa.
A brief assessment of the challenges facing Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria may indicate why their young citizens feel this way about democracy. Lebanon is currently in the throes of its worst economic crisis in history and Palestinians are into their eighth decade of Israeli occupation. Iraq is suspended in political deadlock, while Syria continues to grapple with the effects of a civil war. Unemployment in Jordan is currently at 22.6 per cent, the country's Department of Statistics says.
An overwhelming majority of young Arabs — 82 per cent across the Mena region — said pushing for stability in their country was more important than promoting democracy. The figure is in stark contrast to the 2009 Arab Youth Survey findings, in which 92 per cent of respondents in the same age group said their greatest priority was to live in a democratic country.
Amy Hawthorne, from the Project on Middle East Democracy, a think tank based in Washington DC, said that other surveys have shown democracy is still sought after — but that examples in the region are poor.
"The image of democracy has been tarnished in the Arab world," she said.
"The wars in Syria and Yemen are not a reality any young person would wish for. More recently, the failure of Tunisia’s democratic experiment to improve living conditions, especially for young people, and tackle corruption has further discredited the image of this term. Expectations were sky high and the disappointment is very deep."
Ms Hawthorne said that in many of the Arab states, there was no way to improve economic conditions, create good jobs and improve health care without making governments more accountable.
"Whether or not we use the word democracy, these ingredients of governance are still widely desired, indeed widely dreamt for across the Arab world," she said.
Natasha Ridge, executive director at Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said it made "very logical sense" that young Arabs would be deterred by the idea of democracy, having seen attempts at it fail in nations across the region.
"Given what they have experienced of democracy, I can totally understand that young people would actually prefer a much more stable regime," she said.
"They have seen attempts to introduce it in Iraq post-conflict, which failed miserably. They saw that it was also not successful in Egypt.
"When they hear the word democracy, that is their association."
Five main takeaways from the 2022 Arab Youth Survey:
- Almost two thirds (65 per cent) of young Arabs say preserving their religious and cultural identity is more important than creating a more globalised society. This figure rises to 75 per cent in the Gulf.
- More than a third of young Arabs (35 per cent) say rising cost of living and unemployment are the biggest obstacles facing the region. Other concerns include unemployment (32 per cent), and the Israeli occupation of Palestine (29 per cent).
- Some 31 per cent of young Arabs see the US and Nato as more responsible for war in Ukraine than Russia, though 37 per cent said they did not know or could not say either way.
- More than half (57 per cent) of young Arabs say the UAE is the country they would most like to live in. The UAE is rated as the most desirable country for the 11th consecutive year.
- Over the past five years, China has been seen by young Arabs as a stronger ally to their nation than the US. At least 78 per cent said China was a stronger ally, while 63 per cent chose the US.
Growing up in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings
Respondents of this year's survey, conducted by the PR consultancy Asda'a BCW, would have been aged 8 to 12 during the Arab Uprisings of 2010-2013. The uprisings involved several Arab countries attempting to overthrow governments they viewed as authoritarian and corrupt in favour of democracy. In the end, only Tunisia experienced a true revolution, while most nations witnessed limited change to their regimes.
This reversal in political sentiment among Arab young people comes after more than a decade of instability in some countries, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Despite the perceived negative outlook on democratic movements in their respective countries, at least 63 per cent of young Arabs say they have more rights and freedoms today as a result of the uprisings. This sentiment is felt most strongly in the Gulf, where 68 per cent of those polled said they enjoyed more rights today than in 2010.
Other concerns among young Arabs highlighted in the survey included the increased role of government in their daily lives. About 60 per cent of respondents said this troubled them but, as with much of the survey findings, results varied significantly between Gulf countries, the Levant, and North Africa. Less than half of young Arabs in the Gulf are concerned about the increasing role of government in their lives, while 66 per cent of the Levant were.
Similarly, 88 per cent of Arabs in the Gulf believe their voices matter to their country's leadership, while only half in the Levant believe the same.
Better policymaking to address persistent social and economic concerns such as access to jobs, education and rising living costs was also high on the list of young Arabs' demands.
Though they face many challenges, most remain optimistic that their best days lie ahead, with at least 64 per cent believing better things are yet to come.
Optimism for days ahead
More than half, 54 per cent, say they will have a better life than their parents — the highest level of optimism seen in the survey over the past three years.
This outlook, again, varies greatly between the Gulf ―where 72 per cent believe they will live better lives than their parents ― and the Levant, where only 47 per cent believe this to be so.
Sunil John, founder of Asda'a BCW, said the ambivalence among Arab young people showed they stood at a crossroads seeking direction.
“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," he said.
"They want more freedoms, but they prioritise 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.”
*Additional reporting by Rory Reynolds and Ramola Talwar Badam