Faisal al Yafai is the chief columnist for The National newspaper. He 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. In his columns for The National, he writes on foreign policy, economics and international affairs. A frequent guest on television networks such as CNN, the BBC and France 24, he has also served as a Churchill Fellow in Lebanon and Indonesia.
Another extraordinary year has passed in the Arab world. A year in which, in cities across the region, relationships have developed, businesses have flourished and communities have thrived. That same year, in other cities and towns, tragedy has struck, battles have been fought and communities have been broken.
That two such divergent realities exist in one region is testament to the extraordinary time of upheaval that the Middle East is living through. At such a moment, perhaps it is no surprise to see such different realities reflected in the attitudes of young Arabs.
Asked whether, considering the past five years, things in their countries were generally going in the right or wrong direction, fewer Arabs than last year felt things were going well (52 per cent in 2017 compared to 64 per cent in 2016). In a region where four countries are still gripped by major wars (Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya), that is hardly surprising.
But when split into geographical areas, the findings look even more stark. In the GCC, an extraordinary 85 per cent felt things were going in the right direction, while in the Levant and Yemen, the exact same percentage felt things were going in the wrong direction.
In North Africa, where some countries are stabilising (Egypt) alongside those still at war (Libya), the picture was more mixed, with slightly more (51 per cent versus 42 per cent) thinking their countries were moving in the right direction.
What we see therefore is the emergence of two Middle Easts. One where stability and prosperity have birthed a generation who believe even the sky is not the limit, and another where, in a matter of years, communities and cities that have thrived for centuries have broken apart.
This bifurcation of optimism into the haves and the have nots also projects into the future. Asked whether they agreed that “our best days are ahead of us” or “our best days are behind us”, fewer were optimistic overall (58 per cent optimistic versus 71 per cent last year). Split for geography, GCC youth were most optimistic (78 per cent), while youth in the Levant and Yemen were least (32 per cent).
Here again is the tale of two Middle Easts. In one part, optimism and a belief in the future. In another, anxiety and fear. In the Arab world, optimism, satisfaction and even happiness appear to be split by geography. Where you are born determines whether you will reach for the stars.
One might ask why this split even matters. Geography has always determined life chances. Those born in rich, peaceful countries – and even in the rich, peaceful parts of particular countries – always do better than those born in the poorer parts. Applied to the Arab world, one might ask whether these findings merely confirm the same process is happening in this region as happens in many other parts of the world. Surely only those most enamoured with the political union of Arab countries are concerned if some countries are poorer and less optimistic than others?
Look closer however and having two Middle Easts turns out to be a problem as much for the optimistic half as for the rest. The Arab world is almost unique in one respect: across 22 countries, there is the bond of a common language, common culture and a belief in a shared future. That means that, more than in other parts of the world, there is an intense feeling of solidarity across borders and an easy ability to move between countries.
Over the years, that has meant mass movements of people, with some of the best and brightest in the Levant, Yemen and North Africa finding their way to the prospering economies of the Gulf, often spending years and decades building lives and families and businesses.
If the split in optimism and life chances continues, this brain drain will only increase, further exacerbating a divide.
Moreover, the instability and wars of the Middle East have not remained in their own countries. The Middle East has borne the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, with Arab countries and Turkey taking the majority of refugees. But still the crisis has continued, with refugees crossing the Red Sea into East Africa and the Mediterranean into Europe.
A region with two Middle Easts is therefore a profound policy challenge, for leaders in the optimistic half as much as in the rest. A lack of prosperity, stability and optimism in one part will necessarily lead to a mass movement of people. It also provides a breeding ground for nihilistic ideologies that also bleed across borders. The Middle East has proved to devastating effect that a lack of life chances in one area breeds challenges that eventually spill across borders, no matter how high the walls are built.
Such policy must start with the youth, because they are the majority of the population: most Arabs are young. It is also among this group that policy can have the greatest impact. Interestingly, another finding of the Arab Youth Survey suggests that Arab youth want their governments to have that exact focus.
Asked whether they believed their governments had the right policies to address the issues most important to youth, the split of the answers by country correlated well with economic prosperity. In GCC countries, huge majorities thought youth challenges were being addressed (93 per cent in the UAE, 92 per cent in Saudi Arabia, 87 per cent in Kuwait). While in countries facing significant economic and policy challenges, the numbers were reversed (83 per cent most likely to say No in Palestinian Territories, 78 per cent in Iraq, 71 per cent in Yemen).
This link between youth-focused policies and optimism should not be a surprise. The entire focus of young people is on the future. Their future. Governments whose policies focus most on enabling young people to have a prosperous future find their youth most optimistic. When you are sure that your family and community will be safe, that your talents will be recognised and that your hard work will be rewarded, you will feel most optimistic.
It is profoundly in the interests of policymakers across the region to ensure that a degree of prosperity reaches all the countries of the Middle East. In such an interconnected region, prosperity everywhere is the best defence against instability anywhere.
THE EXPERT COMMENTARY
Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017.
Watch our panel of experts discuss the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017. The wide-ranging conversation takes on hot-button issues facing youth today, including lack for job opportunities and the threats posed by extremism.