Arab leaders must listen to youth's concerns

The Arab Youth Survey has revealed that young people in the region are frustrated with corruption and lack of job opportunities

Civilians celebrate the signing of peace agreement between the Sudan's transitional government and Sudanese revolutionary movements to end decades-old conflict, in Juba, South Sudan October 3, 2020. REUTERS/Samir Bol
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For the last 12 years, the Arab Youth Survey has asked young people living in the Arab world about their hopes and dreams, and the challenges they face. This year, the results of the survey revealed a widening gap between the region’s most advanced economies and its nations in crisis, amid the coronavirus pandemic and a worldwide recession.

Four thousand people, aged 18 to 24, in 15 countries participated in the survey to discuss their lives and their perspective on wider trends in the region.

The results, released today, come at a particularly difficult time. The pandemic and the global recession it has caused have placed a heavy burden on Arab economies that rely largely on either tourism or revenue from hydrocarbons to thrive. Covid-19 restrictions have exacerbated the region’s conflict, too. The cycle of conflict and economic hardship has rendered nearly half of all young Arabs desperate to leave their country.

From Tripoli, Lebanon to Tripoli, Libya, some are prepared to risk even death by drowning to escape poverty in the hope of crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.

In Lebanon, 77 per cent of respondents expressed a desire to leave the country, where a massive, deadly explosion in August has compounded a long-running economic crisis and major political dysfunction. In Libya and Yemen, both of which are caught in civil war, 69 and 66 per cent of interviewees, respectively, want to leave.

These high numbers contrast sharply with findings from Gulf states; only 3 percent of Emirati youth and 6 percent of their Saudi counterparts are interested in emigrating. The UAE offers a positive example for the region. For the ninth year in a row, young people said the Emirates was the most desirable country to live in, thanks to its high-paying jobs and stability.

Many young people want to leave because they have lost hope of earning a decent living at home. With the onset of the pandemic, 72 per cent of all respondents said it was more difficult to find a job. That number rose to a staggering 91 per cent in Lebanon and to 90 per cent in Jordan.

Young people are also more in debt today than they were five years ago. Over 65 per cent of respondents from Syria, Jordan and Palestine said they were carrying personal debt, in many cases to access basic necessities such as education and housing. The level of personal debt among young people is much lower in Gulf states – just four per cent in Kuwait, for instance.

More than half of the Arab world’s population is under the age of 25, according to the UN. That many of them are left frustrated and hopeless attests to a serious failure of leadership in some nations. Up to 77 per cent of respondents said their government was corrupt, citing “wasta” (corrupt nepotism) as a major concern.

From Khartoum to Beirut and Baghdad, Arab youth have inspired the world as they strive to make the Middle East a better place

But the region’s youth have not stood idle in the face of despair. Many have called for change, better governance and transparency in the past year. From Lebanon to Iraq, Sudan to Algeria, they have marched in protest. More than 80 per cent of young people interviewed in those countries said they supported the protest movements. These protesters have achieved a great deal. They succeeded in toppling Sudanese dictator Omar Al Bashir, and they brought to power a reformist prime minister in Iraq.

Whether in Khartoum, Beirut or Baghdad, Arab youth have inspired the world as they strive to make the Middle East a better place to call home. It is now time to heed their calls, and to serve as a source of inspiration in turn.