How do Arab youth think? How do they view the future?
These two questions have always preoccupied many, especially after the Arab Spring. Not only were the Arab youth at the forefront of these movements, but their problems and preoccupations were one of the main reasons behind its eruption in the first place. Even if the Arab Spring had never happened, such questions should be one of the major concerns in any region where those under the age of 30 comprise more than two thirds of the entire population, and where the unemployment rate among youth is over 25%, even exceeding 30% in some countries.
The main impression is that because the Arab youth are both frustrated with and enraged by the present and in despair over their future, they fall prey to extremism or drugs, waste their time browsing the Internet, or seek refuge in rebellion and revolution. Therefore, the result of one of the most recent opinion polls may come as a shock. Contrary to the gloomy scenario we see on the news, this opinion poll paints a colorful and more optimistic picture of the situation in the Arab world. In ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller’s Arab Youth Survey, published last week, 75% of Arab youth said they felt optimistic and believed that better days lie ahead. Moreover, 59% said they thought that the recent changes in their countries would bring positive results for them and their families. Surprisingly, the survey’s findings demonstrated convergence in the opinions between youth in the Arab Gulf and those residing elsewhere in the Arab world, the latter of whom are facing great economic challenges. When asked if they believe that better days lie ahead, 76% of Gulf youth answered ‘yes’, as did 72% of those from other Arab states.
Although young people in the Gulf might share problems similar to those in other Arab countries, this high rate of optimism in the Gulf is to be expected, given the fact that the economic situation is better there. Outside the Gulf States—especially in the Arab Spring countries—not only are the challenges greater, there are also fewer opportunities. That is why these optimistic results are so surprising, given the amount of disappointment and pessimism that accompanied the revolutions. The Arab Spring, despite all its difficulties and problems, raised the morale of the Arab youth. For instance, 87% of those who took part in the survey said that they felt proud to be Arabs that were part of the Arab Spring. This feeling is perhaps based on the fact that Arab youth were the ones who really ignited the spark of the Arab Spring. At the same time, this has changed the stereotype that the Arab youth are something of a lost generation, which had been prevalent before the recent revolutions.
As for those who constantly attack Arab youth, accusing them of being alienated and forgetful of the traditional values and the inherited principles of their countries of origin, the survey results indicate that the majority of Arab youth still believe in the importance of embracing traditional values, accompanied by a desire to adopt a modern outlook of life. In an age where both borders and censorship, in their old forms, have faded and left the doors open to the influx and free exchange of information—thanks to the Internet, satellite channels, smart phones and social networking—the real challenge is to find a common ground between the traditional and the modern, finding a way to keep these new generations in touch with their heritage without isolating them from new international developments. With the advent of the “global village” that came about through the telecommunications revolution, calls for isolating the Arab countries from the rest of the world will only increase problems. Thus, in order to increase the Arab youth’s sense of national identity, they should be armed with knowledge and openness. On top of that, by strengthening their self-confidence, Arab youth will be able to compete and differentiate between what is harmful and what is useful. Giving Arab youth both hope and aspiration is the solution, because feelings of despair and idleness are the greatest threats to their intellects and aspirations.
Unemployment, especially among youth, is the greatest difficulty since it prevents them from being creative, and consequently useful for themselves and their societies. Many studies and reports consider unemployment as a “time bomb,” warning that failing to defuse this will have dire economic, social and political consequences.
The crisis of unemployment does not only concern the Arab world; politicians from countries all over the world—from America to Europe, and from Africa to Asia—have lost sleep over this issue. It is no wonder that the issue of unemployment is on the agenda at almost all economics conferences. Almost 40% of the total number of unemployed, estimated at 200 million across the world, are youth. At the same time, the number of university graduates whose qualifications do not meet the needs of the job market is increasing every year. This problem is most felt in the Arab world, where the academic curriculum does not match the needs of the job market. As a result, thousands of graduates every year join the long line of those who are desperately looking for a job. While it is true that there is no “magic cure” for unemployment, we do, however, badly need to reconsider the academic curriculum so that they meet the needs of development and technological advancements. This is not to mention the importance of providing the youth with the training they need to get jobs. The greatest challenge lying ahead will not be met just by governments increasing their efforts and undertakings, but also by the private sector providing more youth with more training and employment opportunities.
It is no wonder that getting a job with a fair wage remains the highest priority for those who took part in this survey. This makes the issue of employment among the greatest challenges lying ahead for governments. Unless governments take fundamental measures to fight unemployment, the optimism demonstrated in this opinion poll will be replaced with despair, disappointment and loss. Consequently, this will most definitely increase the levels of risk and difficulty that these countries face. What is needed is not merely to create more job opportunities, but to build an environment that provides the youth with a better quality of life and greater contribution in the affairs of their present and future.