Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey 2019.

Listen to the voice of pragmatism

Afshin Molavi

Afshin Molavi

Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the historian John Lukacs famously said, “the isms have all become wasms.” I am reminded of this line as I reflect on the 12th Annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, a remarkable annual barometer of youth sentiments across a vital part of the world. For many young Arabs, it seems, the idea of an ‘-ism’ - an all-encompassing ideology to solve their problems - seems almost as anachronistic as a landline telephone. Pragmatism, not ideological ‘isms’, rules the day among young Arabs, and in an era of pandemic-driven insecurity and political upheaval, this essential fact offers us hope for the region’s future.

Consider the top two most serious challenges facing Arab youth, as the survey reveals: “cracking down on government corruption” and “creating new, well-paying jobs.” These are highly pragmatic, justifiable concerns and a recurrent theme in twelve years of this survey. These are not the demands of

revolutionaries. These are justifiable cries for greater opportunity, decent government and more dignified lives.

Among the other concerns as noted in the survey: defeating terrorist organisations, modernising education, diversifying economies away from oil and encouraging technological innovation. Again, these are highly pragmatic concerns that bundle around ‘quality of life’ issues. These ideas are less Che Guevara revolutionary and more Silicon Valley technocratic. Amid the tumultuous decade that the Arab world has just witnessed, the fact that so many young Arabs are simply demanding better governance, less corruption, more opportunity and revised education speaks volumes about their maturity.

Less mature has been an Arab political class, particularly in North Africa and the Levant, that have failed their young populations time and again. Many of these leaders had been using the equivalent of landline telephones to solve the problems of a digital generation - or simply falling back on repression. The Arab uprisings knocked several of those leaders off their gilded ‘thrones,’ but the basic demands of that moment - again, for better jobs, decent governance, more opportunity - have been unfulfilled.

Lebanon today provides a good example of a venal political class unable and unwilling to deliver for their people. As Lebanon’s economy spirals ever downward, drowning large swathes of its population in its wake, the basic question arises: how is it possible that a country with such enviable commercial geography, a highly skilled and educated populace, and a thriving diaspora could face such an economic meltdown? In a word: governance.

Lebanon’s political elite have failed on just about every measure imaginable to deliver the conditions optimal for growth, opportunity, and dignity, while enriching themselves, fighting petty squabbles, and reinforcing sectarian divisions. Is it any wonder, then, that three out of four young Lebanese (77 per cent to be exact) are actively seeking to emigrate or have considered emigrating?

All who care about the future of the Middle East and the Arab world should lament the fate of Lebanon and her storied capital, Beirut. But dig deeper into the findings and there remains hope: yes, young Lebanese are eager to leave their country, but they also care deeply enough about their country to support the protests overwhelmingly (82 per cent) and see them leading to positive change (54 per cent).

While Lebanon provides an example of a political and economic meltdown in real time, other cases have been slower, but just as troubling. This leads us to the troubling finding that nearly half of young Arabs have considered leaving their country. While not as high as Lebanon, repryoung people in other key countries are also seeking to actively migrate, according to the findings: Libya (69 per cent), Yemen (66 per cent), Iraq (65 per cent), Palestine (58 per cent) and Jordan (56 per cent), among others.

The Arab Youth Survey, now in its 12th year, has emerged as a remarkable chronicle of youth views in a world in flux. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some of the weaknesses and strengths in various countries and has accelerated some of the negative trends like unemployment. In fact, in the COVID Pulse Survey, young Arabs feel even more concerned about their future employment than they did before the pandemic – and unemployment has been a perennial top concern.

A few things, however, have remained constant, including the repeated and consistent cries for a better economic future. Another constant has been the view of the United Arab Emirates among Arab youth. For the ninth year running, the UAE remains the top country to emulate and live in, according to the survey.

It’s important to note that this question, posed to young Arabs, includes the entire world, not just the Arab world, and somehow the UAE beats out the US, Europe, Canada and other familiar lodestars. Dig deeper into the top three reasons why the UAE was chosen as the place young Arabs would most like to live in: “safe and secure” (44 per cent), “wide range of work opportunities” (36 per cent), “generous salary packages” (32 per cent). Once again, these are pragmatic concerns of a young population whipsawed by political insecurity, economic underperformance and scarce job opportunities. Looked at that way, it seems understandable that they would see a fellow Arab country, close to home, as preferable to a distant land in the West.

The historian John Lukacs who famously said that “all isms have become wasms” had one caveat: nationalism. That remained strong, he argued. When young Arabs take to the streets, waving flags, to protest their government’s failings, they are demonstrating a form of nationalism that is healthy and hopeful. It is not the nationalism of exclusion or the nationalisms of their parents’ generation based on false utopias; rather, it is a nationalism of a people who care deeply about their country and are seeking to change it for the better.

From the survey’s findings, it seems that young Arabs are not in search of a new ‘ism.’ They simply want a decent government, a decent job, decent opportunities, and decent education. This is both hopeful for the region’s future, and tragic that governments have failed so miserably to meet these pragmatic desires.

Afshin Molavi is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, where he writes broadly on emerging markets, Middle East political economies, the New Silk Road, and the intersection of geopolitics and the global economy. Molavi’s writings over the years have appeared in the Financial Times, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg View, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Businessweek, Journal of Commerce, National Geographic and Institutional Investor, and he has been a regular guest on CNN, BBC, Al-Arabiya, Sky News Arabia and other channels. He is the founder and editor of the New Silk Road Monitor.