Expert Commentary

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

UAE pioneers a new model of social, cultural and religious pluralism

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

It comes as no surprise that the United Arab Emirates has once again ranked first in the 2020 Arab Youth Survey as the country most desirable to live in and to be emulated. During the last nine years since this question was introduced in the survey, Arab youth have consistently identified the UAE as the top choice in both categories, not only in the Middle East, but globally. The nation leads a range of alternatives including perennially top-rated countries such as the United States, France, Canada, Germany, Japan and Turkey.

The UAE’s consistent record in recent years of being the first-ranked choice is striking. As the most desirable place to live, it received 46 per cent of the votes compared to the runner-up, the US, at 33 per cent. And regarding the country Arab youth most want their own to emulate, the UAE has also been consistently at number one. In the 2020 survey, 56 per cent of Arab youth chose the UAE, while 30 per cent chose the US.

Why would such a large percentage of Arab youth, close to half of the large sample from a wide range of countries in the Gulf, the Levant and North Africa, express the desire to live in the UAE rather than the US, Canada, the UK and Germany? And why do more than half identify the UAE as the country to most emulate, far beyond the US, Germany, Canada and Japan?

The prospect of good jobs is clearly a factor, but that alone is not a sufficient explanation. Otherwise some other prosperous Gulf Arab countries might have been expected to also be high-ranking potential destinations, but they have not featured prominently or consistently at the top, with the partial exception of Saudi Arabia selected as a leading domicile of choice in some years. Instead, plainly there is a perception about the overall quality of life in the UAE that is putting it on a par with, and indeed ahead of, the most prominent Western states as a domicile of choice and model for national emulation for so many young Arabs.

What are the qualities Arab youth find so appealing about the UAE? Not surprisingly, three of the major factors are employment opportunities, generous salaries and a strong economy. Yet the same would certainly apply to Western countries that are also ranked high in preferred residence and best example for other countries to follow. Safety and security are actually the most important qualities cited by the huge percentage of Arab youth who favor the UAE as a destination or model. The UAE is perceived as a safe and stable environment in a frequently unsafe and unstable region, one in which society functions well under an effective and efficient government. And that’s closely linked to the sense that economic opportunities abound. It also explains why the UAE would be considered a model by citizens of Arab countries, many of which struggle to provide stability, safety and economic opportunities.

Other quality-of-life issues rank highly, including good treatment of expats, a family-friendly environment, and strong educational opportunities. The UAE is almost certainly preferred to the most prominent Western societies precisely because it is an Arab and Muslim example of a dynamic, well-governed and economically vibrant modern country. It is not merely that economic opportunities abound, because they can also be found in other Gulf Arab countries, not to mention Western states. And it’s not just that the UAE is authentically Arab or Muslim, because, again, many other Middle Eastern countries certainly are as well. Rather it appears to be the unique combination of cultural authenticity, tradition and religious heritage along with good governance, social dynamism and international engagement that captures the imagination of young Arabs around the region.

The UAE has pioneered a model of social, cultural and religious pluralism, and an appreciation of that also seems to be reflected in the survey results. Arab youth around the region seem to understand, accurately, that not only are they likely to find employment in the UAE but that the country happily accommodates a huge range of beliefs, traditions, lifestyles and social and cultural choices. Yet it is an Arab and Muslim country strongly rooted in its heritage. That combination appears to be extremely appealing, and helps explain its high marks as a model for their own societies. In recent years, the UAE has been promoting a new Arab model of how government and society should interact with a range of individuals and communities based on pluralism, tolerance and diversity. That model stands in contrast to closed-minded, xenophobic and theocratic tendencies in some other regional states. The survey suggests that the UAE may be winning this argument.

The UAE is a geographically and demographically small Arab country, but it is exceptionally dynamic. Certainly, no other Arab state is as deeply integrated into the global economy and international cultural scene. Dubai is virtually synonymous with cosmopolitan sophistication. Abu Dhabi is, increasingly, an Arab cultural, educational, technological and political gravitational centre. The country is remarkably bold and ambitious, as numerous initiatives, most notably the Hope Probe mission to Mars launched this summer - after the Main Survey interviews were finalised - confirm. While much of the Arab world is struggling with economic development, effective governance and social stability, one small but powerful Arab society is reaching into the cosmos. It’s hardly surprising that is seen as a model by so many young Arabs.

The UAE has also championed a vision of citizenship for the Arab world based on pluralism, diversity, tolerance and patriotism. It rejects jingoism, obscurantism, xenophobia and sectarianism, traits that hamper some other societies in the region. And because of that, it is perceived, as the survey results indicate, as not only a nation to be emulated but one that is welcoming and generous to outsiders. Yet unlike its competitors in the list of countries to be emulated or lived in, it remains quintessentially Arab. The 2020 Arab Youth Survey indicates this unique combination of Arab, cosmopolitan and hyper-modern qualities is as appealing in practice as it sounds on paper.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is a weekly columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and is a regular contributor to many other publications. He has made thousands of radio and television appearances and was the Washington DC correspondent for the Daily Star (Beirut). Ibish previously served as a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, and as Executive Director of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American Leadership from 2004 to 2009. From 1998 to 2004, Ibish served as Communications Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He has a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.