By Faisal Al Yafai
Living in a multipolar world will come about – as Ernest Hemingway said about going bankrupt – gradually, and then suddenly. The latest ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey shows clearly that the Arab world is living through the “gradually” part of the process.
This shifting reality is already apparent, but it takes an effort to detect it as a trend. One of the outcomes of a long-established survey like the Arab Youth Survey is that, over time, trends that weren't immediately obvious become clearer through the data.
This year, one of the major findings is just how embedded a new, global multipolarity is. Looking at which countries Arab youth considered allies and which enemies throws up some intriguing answers.
At the top, more an ally than any other country outside the region, is Turkey, followed swiftly by China. The US, the UK and France are trending downwards. In microcosm, this shift reflects what is happening across the world, as the “rest” catch up with the “West”. As a region that straddles three of the major centres of the world, the Middle East was one of the first to feel its effects. As it develops, the Arab world, and of course Arab youth, will be the first to live with the reality of a multipolar world.
In some ways it is already becoming a reality – witness the China-brokered deal earlier this year to restore Saudi Arabia's relations with Iran.
But it's becoming a reality in other ways as well. While certainly true that the politics of Turkey's involvement in the region, as well as China's, play a role in the perception of Arab youth, it's also the case that culture matters too. The two often go hand in hand. Turkey's cultural exports in film, television and music are avidly consumed by young Arabs. As for China, the country is becoming a vital source of tourists. Saudi Arabia, for example, which has a young population, plans to bring in more than 4 million Chinese tourists by the end of this decade. Such links change the perception of the country.
A more complicated geopolitical landscape
This multipolarity will not look like the past, when the twin poles of the US and the Soviet Union existed during the Cold War. Instead, it will be more complicated.
Like most of the world, the Middle East lives with the extraordinary military dominance of the United States. Little wonder that the survey found America to be the country with the most influence over the region, by a wide margin.
That this influence is broadly considered negative is shown in a follow-up question, which found that a majority of Arab youth want the US to disengage from the region. (That belief was tempered in the GCC, with only a slim majority, 53%, wanting US disengagement.)
Yet, as always, the picture is more complicated. Look at two of the survey's findings.
First, asked to name which country young Arabs would most like to live in or have their countries emulate, a clear majority chose the UAE. (No surprise there: young Arabs have said they admire the country ever since the ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey introduced the question in 2012.) But the second most popular country this year was the United States.
The reasons why the UAE topped the list offers indications as to why the US is respected. Among the top associations were safety, a growing economy and ease of doing business – all associations that could also apply to the United States. More evidence can be found in the question about which country will be a stronger ally. Here, there was a tilt towards the US, but only just.
Almost exactly the same percentage thought the US would be a stronger ally than Russia (66%) as thought the US would be a stronger ally than China (62%). Put another way, there was a preference for the US, but not much for Russia or China.
This demonstrates the messiness of multipolarity. Arab youth admire many things about the US, but also dislike its excessive involvement in the region. But it also highlights how countries that seek to rival the US in some spheres aren't interested in doing so in others. Neither China nor Russia wishes to supplant the US from the Middle East – yet in some spheres, they are rivals. An emerging multipolar world will be much harder to understand, and perhaps navigate.
Allies and adversaries in focus
In general, the allies and adversaries are mirror images of each other, with the country considered mostly an ally (Turkey) also ranking least as an adversary, and the country considered mostly an adversary (Israel) also ranking the least as an ally. But for two countries this isn't true, India and Pakistan, reflecting the more nuanced position these two Asian countries find themselves in vis a vis Arab youth – and perhaps also reflecting the long, deep and complex ties these two countries have with the Gulf States, with Iraq and with other countries.
If Arab youth still see other Arab countries as allies – and the strongest allies named by Arab nations were always other Arab nations – then the non-Arab countries of the Middle East occupy a more nuanced position. Of the three main non-Arab countries in the Middle East – Turkey, Iran and Israel – Turkey has the strongest position.
Iran and Israel, by contrast but not unexpectedly, are viewed in less flattering terms by Arab youth. In only three Arab countries is there more than 50% support for normalisation with Israel – Egypt, Morocco and the UAE – and in the majority of countries there is far less.
On Iran, a majority of Arab youth in every region believe there will be military conflict between Iran, Israel and the West. That the highest figure is in the Levant, where this proxy war is already playing out, shouldn't be a surprise. But the fact that North Africa, which is hardly a traditional battleground for Iranian-Israeli tensions, should score so highly is a surprise.
An emerging global citizenship
What will be the consequences of this shift to multipolarity, especially as it pertains to young Arabs? Some we've already touched on: an expanding cultural diet and political connections, which will no doubt lead to shifting work opportunities. The number of young Arabs learning Mandarin and taking jobs in Shanghai will certainly expand. I also expect a similar expansion of the number of Arabs learning Turkish – leading, no doubt, to thundering newspaper columns about “Ottoman” influence. In time, these changes will also shift the politics of the region, as the cultural influence stretches into political alignments.
But the major shift will be one of mindset. A world in which young Arabs consider countries beyond the Middle East and the West allies will also shift how they think of themselves. A new, more global citizenship will not emerge overnight. But the shoots of it are already apparent in how young Arabs view this emerging world. How they navigate it will be one of the most exciting aspects to observe.
Faisal Al Yafai is a partner at Hildebrand Nord, International Editor at New Lines Magazine in Washington, DC, and a playwright. He has worked as a journalist in several Middle Eastern countries and was previously an investigative journalist for The Guardian in London and a documentary journalist for the BBC. He has reported from across the Middle East, from Eastern Europe and Africa.
This commentary was published in Arabian Business.