With the region in flux, young Arabs aspire to a stable future

Only by listening to the voices of youth can we build the societies that they deserve

Israeli Arabs hold a Palestinian flag during a protest against the Jewish nation bill in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. The recently passed law that enshrines Israel's Jewish character and downgrades the standing of Arabic from an official to a "special" language. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Of the 400 million-plus people in the Arab world, two-thirds are under the age of 30. Coming at a time of great flux across the Middle East, with conflict, volatility and regime change creating uncertainty in many of its nations, the Arab Youth Survey gives us a snapshot of the hopes and fears of a young generation. Now in its 11th year, the survey's overview of their chief concerns and expectations is not merely enlightening but vitally important in shaping their futures. The 3,300 people surveyed in 15 countries, aged between 18 and 24, are the citizens and leaders of tomorrow. This year’s report, titled “A Call for Reform”, presents a number of fascinating revelations.

Some of the survey results this year herald unprecedented issues that reflect the world we live in today, ranging from drug abuse to mental health concerns and religious extremism. But, as ever, there are constants. For the eighth year in a row, young Arabs view the UAE as the region’s most desirable place to live. With instability rife in many of the countries represented in the study, the percentage of young people who aspire to live in the UAE has increased markedly since last year. It is a reflection of this nation’s political anchorage, strong economy and world-class health and education services. It is a tragic reality that these characteristics are absent across large areas of the region. These pages have long argued that the UAE’s approach is worth emulating beyond its borders, and 42 per cent of the survey's respondents underline this belief.

For the eighth year in a row, young Arabs view the UAE as the region's most desirable place to live.

Yet beyond the UAE – which has the world's youngest cabinet minister, still in her 20s – the younger generation is woefully under-represented in government. Many of those surveyed also felt entitled to government support – including for jobs and even loans – while 78 per cent were unhappy with the educational offering in their country, particularly in the Levant and North Africa, where more than eight in 10 were concerned about the quality of education. One interesting development is that the majority of young Arabs say religion plays an outsize role in the region and that religious institutions need to be reformed. That is not necessarily cause for concern – but it does suggest a growing gap between young Arabs and their more conservative elders.

For the first time, mental health is listed as a major concern, with one-third of respondents knowing someone who suffers from mental health issues, while 81 per cent of respondents in the Levant felt it would be "difficult" to access quality medical care for such conditions. Illicit drug use is also a worry, with a majority of young Arabs outside of the Gulf reporting that narcotics are easy to acquire in their country and drug use is on the rise. As The National reports today, the problem is particularly severe in Lebanon, where there were reportedly 3,669 arrests for drug use in 2016. Other details are less a reflection of shortcomings and more indicative of expectations.

While young Arabs remain concerned about conflict, religious orthodoxy and social ills, the survey also provides cause for cautious optimism. The young people on course to inherit this region know that they are entitled to a better future. Now we are reminded once again of this truth also. We must help them to build the societies they want and deserve.