Are young Arabs becoming more or less conservative?

The new Arab Youth Survey notes some interesting changes from previous years

A young Iraqi in Basra. AFP
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Young people do not often hold the reins of power, but their attitudes and happiness matter hugely to ensuring the stability and future of any society.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Arab world, for a significant reason. It is one of the youngest regions in the world.

It is also one of the most complex. For years, trying to understand their views, hopes and concerns has been the difficult task of the Arab Youth Survey. On Wednesday its latest instalment was released, the result of interviews with 3,400 Arabs in 17 Mena countries.

A stand-out finding this year is that a majority believe democracy would never work in the region. In the beleaguered Levant, this opinion stood at a massive 72 per cent.

Just over a decade ago several countries in the region were gripped by uprisings. As troubles mounted in the immediate years after, many in society shifted towards a belief that stability and effective government were key for progress. Today, the shift is yet more striking; that the region has its most sceptical group of young people more than a decade later is a sign of how instability is shaping opinions.

The picture is far from straightforward, however. Other polls suggest that in some places forms of democratic governance remain sought-after.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a general diminishing appeal of idealism in favour of pragmatism. Eighty-two per cent said pushing for national stability was more important than promoting democracy. In 2009, the survey found the opposite: 92 per cent of respondents said their greatest priority was to live in a democratic country.

Key worries about the future relate to the economy. A third say rising cost of living and unemployment are the biggest obstacles in the region. With a strong economy in a region where few are found, it is not a surprise that the UAE is still the top country young Arabs want to make their home. Responding to the finding, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, tweeted: "The economy comes above everything else."

All this talk of immediate living conditions is not to say that deeper, longer-term themes are unimportant. Israel's occupation of Palestine is a primary concern of 29 per cent of young Arabs. Interestingly, worries about holding on to one's culture in a globalised world also rank highly. Almost two-thirds said preserving religious and cultural identity is more important than creating a more globalised society.

As ever, the Arab Youth Survey is a mixed bag. This year's in particular dispels the notion that young people are a monolithic entity and provides an important, to some surprising insight on what they ask of their governments. British historian Paul Addison's famous observation that "If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain" does not stack up in 2022 in the Middle East. A connected, increasingly globalised group of young people is refusing to belong to one ideological bloc, preferring to think for themselves.

Finally, though many Arabs still face challenges and will do so for some time, most, 64 per cent to be precise, remain optimistic that their best days lie ahead. A welcome conclusion to a mixed survey.

Published: September 22, 2022, 5:13 AM