President Barack Obama was about to start his first term and the mood was one of hope after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But just as he was about to take office, the global financial crisis struck, and its aftershocks soon reverberated around the world, from Wall Street to Main Street, and on to the Arab Street.
In the decade before the downturn, the Arabian Gulf nations had enjoyed an economic boom. The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was synonymous with these heady days, labelled by some Western observers as the ‘City on the Hill’ and a ‘Beacon of Hope’ in a region more readily associated with conflict and civil unrest.
In other Middle Eastern countries, however, long-standing enmities had worsened. The Palestinian-Israeli crisis had deepened. Iraq had been battered by a wave of insurgent attacks. Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen were restive.
The Arab youth dividend at risk
Amidst a rising tide of public dissatisfaction, populist movements were gaining ground, in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries, although they were largely ignored, or unseen, by most policymakers and the international media.
However, the risk of the Middle East losing its precious ‘youth dividend’ was clearly visible to us at ASDA’A BCW, the region’s leading communications consultancy.
While UN data pointed to double-digit youth unemployment rates, reliable attitudinal research was lacking. The need to create 100 million jobs was a much-debated topic on the conference circuit, but youth themselves were rarely part of the conversation.
That was when we saw the critical need for a survey that attempted to understand the hearts and minds of Arab youth, the Middle East’s largest demographic. Around 60% of the Arab world’s population, some 200 million young men and women, are below the age of 30. In 2008, we launched the annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey to give them a voice.
Our rationale was clear: accurate insights lead to carefully considered policies and social and economic conditions in which youth can thrive.
Predicting the Arab Spring
The first ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey on the hopes, concerns and aspirations of young men and women aged 18 to 24 was well received. However, the real significance of our research would become apparent a year later, when we announced that the top priority of Arab youth was living in a democratic country. They also demanded better access to quality education, a fair wage, and safer communities.
The following December, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked the overthrow of the Tunisian government and the onset of regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The Arab Spring changed the Arab world forever, and the rest of the world along with it.
The perception of our annual study was also transformed. Having accurately identified the factors behind the most significant upheaval in the Middle East for a generation, the annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey became a respected bellwether of Arab youth opinion.
Mapping evolving priorities
Each year, our study throws a spotlight on the outlook of the Arab world’s largest demographic, their shifting mindset, and evolving priorities. In 2012, fair pay and home ownership were deemed more important than living in a democracy. In 2013, a new spirit of optimism had taken hold, with the majority of those surveyed convinced their best days lay ahead.
In 2014, we found that confidence in government had risen. Two years later, however, less than half of Arab youth said they trusted their national government to manage surging terrorism and the threat of ISIS (Daesh).
In 2017, our study observed waning youth optimism and a growing divergence in the views of youth in the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and those in the conflict-stricken countries of North Africa and the Levant.
The consensus in 2018 was that the Arab world was drifting off course. Once again, young men and women across the region were demanding urgent action on jobs, education, corruption, and Islamic extremism. The call for reform grew even louder in 2019, with even religious institutions coming in for criticism.
In 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, confidence was arguably at its lowest ebb, with nearly half of Arab youth surveyed saying they had considered emigrating from their country. There were also heightened fears that a prolonged shut-down would lead to further political unrest, as our one-off Pulse Survey at the peak of the crisis indicated.
Predictably, in 2021, with the danger of COVID-19 starting to recede, our survey documented the renewed confidence of Arab youth. The following year, the yearning of Arab youth for stability – to chart a new course after a decade of uncertainty and upheaval – was unmistakable. In fact, it was even stronger than the desire of Arab youth for democratic change, a striking reversal in attitudes since 2009.
The rise of Gen Z
Significantly, all our sample in this year’s Arab Youth Survey belong to the post-Millennial generation born after 1997, also known as Generation Z. They are coming to terms with the events of the past 15 years: the civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, the rise and fall of ISIS (Daesh), the COVID-19 pandemic, near all-time high unemployment, accelerating digitalisation, and the existential threat of climate change.
What shines through is the sense that today’s generation of Arab youth are Living a New Reality – the overarching theme of this year’s survey – where geopolitical allegiances are realigning, where attitudes to the region’s long-standing conflicts are diverging, and where perspectives on what constitute a ‘model nation’ are becoming more nuanced.
For our 15th annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, we have decided to release the findings in stages under separate themes: My Global Citizenship, My Politics, My Livelihood, My Identity, My Aspirations, and My Lifestyle. This is because, as many of you told us, the volume of data we collect each year is now simply too large to be published in a single launch.
Accordingly, we examine the findings under the first of our six themes, ‘My Global Citizenship.’
As I reflect on the first 15 years of the ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, it is astonishing to me that we have conducted nearly 45,000 face-to-face interviews across the Arab world to date, and now reach 18 Arab states. This is an incredible source of knowledge and data, which we fund entirely ourselves and make freely available to all.
We will continue to provide Arab youth a voice through our survey. As the region charts a course toward a more peaceful and sustainable future for the region and the world, it is incumbent upon us all to listen to them.