As the sun washed over the River Nile, a young Egyptian graduate student told me of his dream: “I want to go to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, or somewhere in the Gulf, and find a job with decent pay and just live a normal life away from all of the troubles I have at home.”
I had this conversation with the student a few years before the Arab uprisings of 2011 that rocked Egypt and the region, but a version of this conversation had been taking place elsewhere in North Africa and the Levant at the time and has spread ever since.
The most recent Arab Youth Survey paints a stark picture of a divide in the Arab world, one that separates the relatively hopeful youth of the GCC region and the largely frustrated and anxious youth from North Africa and the Levant regions.
On several key issues, it seems as if the two sets of youth – GCC on one side and North Africa and Levant on the other – are living in entirely different worlds.
Let us consider this basic polling question asked by the surveyors: “Thinking about the last five years, in general, do you think things in your country of residence are going in the right direction or in the wrong direction?”
In the Levant, 71 per cent of youth say their country is going in the wrong direction. North African youth are similarly pessimistic, with 61 per cent pointing to the “wrong direction” category. By contrast, only 16 per cent of GCC youth fear their country is moving in the wrong direction, reflecting a far more hopeful population.
Perhaps part of the reason that Arabs in North Africa and Levant have grown increasingly concerned about the direction of their countries owes a great deal to their lack of faith in government.
When asked if their governments have the right policies to address their concerns, only a third of youth in North Africa and the Levant responded positively. When GCC youth were asked the same question, a resounding 83 per cent felt confidence in their governments.
What’s more, the youth of North Africa and the Levant feel voiceless when it comes to their governments, with only about a third agreeing with the idea that their voice matters to government decision-making. As for GCC youth, 78 per cent felt their voices mattered.
What emerges from these results are a deeply restive, anxious and frustrated youth population in North Africa and the Levant with little hope for the future. More than a decade after the Arab uprisings that represented an explosion of years – even decades – of mounting frustration, we have not seen much progress. On the eve of these events, youth unemployment stood at about 25 per cent across the region. Today’s youth unemployment? Roughly the same.
Going back to the 2008-10 Arab Youth Surveys, one can detect the seeds of the uprisings in the anxious voices of youth. Digging deep into those findings, one sees repeated themes of uncertainty and frustration around kitchen-table issues, such as the rising cost of living and unemployment. Even back then, the dividing line of perceptions and hopes between GCC youth and non-GCC youth was noticeable. Those lines seem to keep widening.
The 2023 survey results show that when it comes to paying their expenses, finding a job, or facing debt, GCC youth once again fare better than the rest of the region – though the gap is much smaller when it comes to debt loads.
According to the OECD, some 55 per cent of the population of the Middle East and North Africa region are under the age of 30, with nearly a quarter of those falling into the critical years of 15-29. In so many ways, the success of nations and regions owes to what kind of platform they provide for young people to thrive. In the right circumstances, young populations can be a boon, a driver of innovation and change, rocket fuel for a growing economy.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but clearly a combination of strong educational systems, a robust private sector, basic security, an entrepreneur-friendly legal system, and advanced infrastructure are key ingredients. Few countries possess all of those ingredients, but there is one intangible ingredient that is difficult to measure, but vital to a nation’s future: hope.
The 2023 ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, at bottom, depicts a glaring hope gap between GCC youth and the rest of the region. There is nothing more tragic – or damaging to the future of a country – than a hopeless generation with squandered potential, seeking to leave their country. And yet, this is the stark reality across many regional countries.
Still, there are gems of hope across the survey. For the first time in five years, more young people expressed their desire to work in the private sector than for government. More young people also expressed a desire to start their own business (42 per cent). Though the gap between the perceived difficulty of starting a business between GCC youth (more hopeful) and the rest was fairly wide, the fact that more than a third of North Africans and those from the Levant are eager to take the entrepreneur’s leap is promising.
Anyone who has travelled widely across the Arab world would have seen immediately the promise and resilience and dynamism of its young people. With just a modest boost, those young people will take their countries to new heights.
After 15 years of surveys, the message of young Arabs is loud and clear. They simply want a decent opportunity to thrive, a level playing field where they can utilise their talents and energy at home. These are not unreasonable demands. They deserve to be heard.