Monday, June 15, 2015

OpEd: Tomorrow's World - Inside The Minds Of Arab Youth

By Mohd Ahsanuddin Haseeb
Principal Gulf Editor 
in Jeddah, KSA
With the legacy of the Arab Spring waning, Arab youth are uncertain whether democracy could ever work in the Middle East.

Confidence among Arab youth that the Arab Spring would bring positive change across the region is declining. In 2015, just 38 percent agree that the Arab world is better off following the Arab Spring, compared to 54 percent in 2014, 70 percent in 2013, and 72 percent in 2012. Similarly, fewer than half (41 percent) agree they will be better off in five years following the uprisings, down from 58 percent in 2014, 74 percent in 2013, and 71 percent in 2012.

The continued regional turmoil appears to weigh heavily on Arab youth outside the GCC region. When asked to think about the Arab world following the uprisings, 35 percent in North Africa and 25 percent in the Levant think it is better off, while looking ahead at the next five years, just 39 percent in North Africa and 26 percent in the Levant feel they will be better off.

As a result, Arab youth are uncertain about democracy ever working in the Middle East.

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement “democracy will never work in the region”, 39 percent agree it will never work, 36 percent think it could work while the remaining 25 percent are unsure. Views on democracy vary significantly from country to country. Youth in Yemen are most skeptical about it (61 percent agree that democracy will never work), followed by Qatar (60 percent), Saudi Arabia (59 percent), Oman (52 percent) and Tunisia (46 percent). The five countries most optimistic about democracy are Kuwait (58 percent disagree that democracy could never work), Iraq (48 percent), Libya (42 percent), UAE (44 percent) and Palestine (36 percent).

The conflicting views on democracy in the Middle East are also reflected by the fact that when asked to name the biggest obstacles facing the region, just 15 percent cite “lack of democracy”, down from 38 per cent in 2014, 43 percent in 2013 and 41 percent in 2012. In 2011, “living in a democracy” was the most important desire for 92 percent of Arab youth polled.

2. The rise of ISIL is seen as the biggest obstacle facing the region and fewer than half of Arab youth are confident their national government can deal with it.

The rise of ISIL - also known as Daesh, the self proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Levant - is a major concern for Arab youth with nearly three in four (73 percent) concerned with the extremist group’s growing influence and almost two in five (37 percent) citing it as the biggest obstacle facing the region. At the same time, fewer than half (47 percent) are confident their national government can deal with this new threat. There are significant differences across the region in terms of confidence in their government’s ability to deal with ISIL. While three in five (60 percent) in the GCC and over half (53 percent) are confident in North Africa, just 25 percent of youth in the Levant say they are confident.

Arab youth are concerned about their government’s ability to deal with the rise of the group, particularly in those countries whose borders neighbour ISIL territory. Youth are most concerned in Lebanon, where 77 percent say they are “not confident” in their government’s ability to tackle its growing reach, followed by Libya (63 percent), Bahrain (59 percent), Iraq (56 percent) and Jordan (51 percent).

In contrast, youth in most of the GCC appear to be more confident in their government’s ability to deal with the group. Four of the top five countries in terms of confidence are in the Gulf. Those polled in Algeria have the most confidence in their government (83 percent), followed by the UAE (71 percent), Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (77 percent each) and Qatar (70 percent).

The concerns follow the rapid spread and apparent influence of ISIL around the world through its use of social media. The group has struck in the heart of the Arab world, capturing territory across Syria and Iraq, attempting to erase borders and demanding allegiance to its extreme interpretation of Islam. The group has gained notoriety across the world for its violent attacks on civilians, foreign aid workers and journalists and its persecution of people across sects and ethnicities that do not adhere to its ultra-hardline doctrine.

3. As unemployment remains a major concern in the region, many young Arabs are keen to start their own business.

Concern about unemployment continues to weigh heavily on Arab youth, with almost one in three (29 percent) citing it as the biggest obstacle facing the region. When asked to comment on how concerned they are about unemployment, the majority (81 percent) say they are “concerned”. The issue is particularly worrying for youth in non-GCC countries where 84 percent are concerned compared to 73 percent in the six GCC states.

Only one in three (33 percent) of youth outside the GCC are confident in their government’s ability to tackle the issue of unemployment, a significant difference compared to the GCC at 68 percent. High unemployment rates continue to be a pressing concern for the region as its youth population grows. Overall unemployment rates differ significantly across the region from as low as 11 percent in Kuwait to over 30 percent in Morocco, according to United Nations data.

Meanwhile the Middle East and North Africa needs to create 80-100 million jobs by 2020 to maintain its current unemployment rates, according to the World Bank. Just over a quarter (27 percent) of non-GCC Arab youth say there are good job opportunities in the area they live, compared to 65 per cent in the GCC.

While decades of oil income have helped GCC states provide secure public sector jobs for the majority of their citizens, many non-GCC countries continue to struggle. Regional governments, concerned about unemployment rates, growing populations and a desire to diversify their economies, are encouraging more citizens to enter the private sector or establish their own businesses. The survey sees positive trends in this area. Nearly two in five (39 percent) young Arabs are looking to start a business within the next five years, with technology and retail being the most popular sectors. When asked to suggest what national governments should do to further encourage entrepreneurship, one third (32 percent) say they should encourage affordable lending. They cite improving available training and education (26 percent) as the second most pressing measure followed by reducing regulation and red tape (19 percent).

4. Arab youth remain cautiously optimistic about the future, despite the number of issues facing the region.

Arab youth are keenly aware of the present issues facing the region but remain cautiously optimistic about the long term future, with youth in the GCC particularly positive. When thinking about the last five years, three in five (57 percent) believe their country is heading in the right direction while 35 percent say things have gone in the wrong direction.

Youth in the GCC are significantly more optimistic than their peers in other parts of the Arab world. Eighty-one per cent of Gulf youth believe things in their country are going in the right direction compared to 57 percent in North Africa and only 29 percent in Levant.

The divide in opinion is less pronounced when Arab youth are asked to think about the future. Thinking about the long term, two in three (67 percent) believe their best days are still ahead while just 26 per cent think their best days are behind them. Almost three in four youth in both the GCC and North Africa believe “Our best days are ahead of us”. Even in the Levant, which continues to grapple with political and economic instability, 57 percent believe their best days are ahead compared to 34 percent who say their best days are behind them.

When asked to choose from a list of adjectives to describe how they feel about the future of the country, 63 percent of youth choose a positive adjective, 25 percent choose a negative adjective while 12 percent say they are “uncertain.” The legacy of the Arab Spring coupled with vast differing economic factors, job prospects and government support shows a clear divide between how Arab youth feel about the future in the oil rich GCC states and those in North Africa and the Levant. The International Monetary Fund recently revised its outlook for economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa to 3.3 percent in 2015, 0.6 percent lower than previous estimates, but said the GCC would not be hit as hard as other regional oil exporters.

5. While youth view the Arabic language as central to their national identity, many believe it is losing its value and converse more in English.

Three in four (73 percent) agree that the Arabic language is central to their identity with youth in the GCC feeling particularly strong about the issue; 81 percent of them agree with the statement “Arabic is central to my national identity” compared to 68 percent in non-GCC countries.

On the other hand, almost half of those polled (47 percent) say that the Arabic language is losing its value while one in three (34 percent) disagree. Youth in the GCC believe the Arabic language is losing its significance more than those in the rest of the region with 54 percent agreeing with the statement “Arabic is losing its value” in the GCC compared to 43 percent in non- GCC countries.

Furthermore, two in three (63 percent) agree that knowing English can advance their career more than knowing Arabic. Again, GCC countries (74 percent) agree more than non-GCC (56 percent) about the greater value of English in the professional world. Significantly, 36 percent of young Arabs use English more than Arabic on a daily basis. The phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the GCC where 56 percent say they use English more than Arabic, versus 24 percent in non-GCC countries. As a result, two in three (63 pe cent) are concerned about the declining use of Arabic with a fairly even split between GCC (61 percent) and non-GCC (65 percent).

Youth in the GCC are more confident about their national government’s ability to deal with the issue with 69 percent expressing confidence their government can preserve the Arabic language. Youth recognise the importance of the Arabic language as part of their identity but as more jobs demand English skills, school curriculums place greater importance on foreign languages and influence of western pop culture rises, many believe knowing English will further their career.

6. The UAE remains the country that most Arab youth would like to live in and is seen as a model for their country to emulate for the fourth year running.

When asked to name a country anywhere in the world where they would like to live, Arab youth cite the UAE as their top choice for the fourth year running ahead of 20 other countries, including the United States, Germany and Canada.

Across the 16 countries polled, one in five (20 percent) say they would like to live in the UAE. For the second year running, the United States is the second most popular (13 percent) followed by Canada and Germany, both at 10 percent. Likewise, when asked to think about which country they would most like their home country to emulate, almost a quarter (22 percent) consider the UAE as a model nation, followed by the United States (15 percent) and Germany (11 percent). Canada and France also feature in the top five at eight percent, respectively, making the UAE the only Arab country in the top five choices identified by Arab youth.

The popularity of the UAE is a reflection of the country’s strong economic outlook and status as a safe haven. The economy of the Gulf state is expected to grow 3.5 percent in 2015 and 2016 in spite of falling oil prices, according to the International Monetary Fund. The country continues to invest in key infrastructure projects and social spending packages.

The UAE is known as a country where young Arabs are encouraged to reach their full potential across a broad spectrum of industries from technology start-ups to the arts and finance, in a culture they are familiar with. Last year, the UAE announced 2015 as the Year of Innovation in a plan to foster innovation across the Gulf state.

7. Saudi Arabia is seen as the top ally in the region, followed by the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

When asked to think about their country’s biggest ally, Arab youth cite Saudi Arabia for the fourth year running and continue to view the UAE and United States as their biggest supporters in the region. One in three (30 percent) consider the Kingdom their biggest ally, while 23 percent cite the United States and 22 percent the UAE. Qatar ranks fourth (16 percent) followed by France (11 percent).

Saudi Arabia, which has started to assert itself more in the region in response to US foreign policy, is viewed as a top ally in 12 Arab countries (all but Tunisia, Iraq, and Libya) while the influence of US and UAE is more limited to the GCC countries. Outside the GCC, only Iraq, Morocco, and Jordan view US as one of their top three allies while outside the GCC, Iraq and Egypt consider the UAE among their top allies. Saudi Arabia has been growing increasingly assertive following Washington’s drive to conclude the framework agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue and its recent cautionary approach in the Middle East. President Obama’s decision in 2013 not to bomb Syria after the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Al Assad regime, has concerned Riyadh. 

The conservative Gulf state is typically shy about taking part in military action but its recent air strikes in Yemen along with a ten-nation Arab coalition and growing military partnerships with regional allies are signs of a bid to play a bigger role in the wider Middle East. Saudi Arabia has been for some time concerned about Iran’s growing influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

The UAE is also demonstrating its political weight in the region, offering joint support in the fight against ISIS, as well as recent military action in Yemen. Fighting Islamic extremists at home and abroad is the centrepiece of the official Emirati world view as described by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. The UAE’s prominent role in providing political and economic support to the El-Sisi government in Egypt has further catapulted the country to be amongst the top political powers in the region.

8. The majority of Arab youth, particularly in the OPEC countries, are concerned about the falling energy prices, but most also believe the drop is temporary.

More than half of Arab youth are “concerned” (52 percent) about falling energy prices as the cost of oil continues to decline. Thirty seven percent say they are not concerned, while 10 percent “don’t know”.

Unsurprisingly the level of concern is higher in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

In Kuwait, 90 percent of youth say they are concerned, followed by Libya (84 percent), Algeria (75 percent) and Iraq (64 percent).

When asked to think about the negative impact falling energy prices will have on them, three in five (64 percent) expect it will have a negative effect on the economy, on them personally (64 percent), and the entire Arab world (60 percent) as well as their government’s social spending (60 percent).

Just over half (53 percent) believe the current drop is temporary while 26 percent believe the new price is here to stay. In spite of the decline, the majority (72 percent) of youth believe energy should be subsidised by their government. Youth are divided on whether oil-producing countries should decrease production in light of the continued decline.

Out of the six OPEC members polled, youth in Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, and Qatar believe there should be a decrease in production while youth in the UAE are split and those in Saudi Arabia believe it should remain at its current level. Crude oil has declined around 50 percent since last June amid a global oversupply, particularly shale oil in the US, and weakening demand growth. The price has fallen since last November when OPEC said it would maintain its existing production quota. Although prices have recovered since January this year, they have fallen again in recent weeks following concerns of an oversupply in the US.

With the nuclear agreement between the US and Iran coming to a possible conclusion by June 30th, a further enhanced oil supply from Iran is likely to put increased pressure on oil pricing later in the year.

9. A brand’s country of origin matters to many young Arabs and four in five do not rule out the possibility of boycotting a brand for political reasons.

Arab youth consider a brand’s country of origin before purchasing a product with those in the GCC more conscious than their peers in non-GCC countries. Almost half (44 percent) say a brand’s country of origin matters to them, compared to 52 percent who say it does not.

Youth in the UAE are most conscious with 78 percent saying it matters, followed by Oman (58 percent), Qatar (56 percent), Egypt (55 percent) and Algeria (54 percent). When asked which country of origin is most appealing to them, Arab youth cite the United States, Germany and France as the most appealing at 16 percent each.

Across the Arab world one in three (32 percent) would boycott a brand for political reasons while just one in five (21 percent) youth would never support the boycott of a brand for political reasons. Nearly half (46 percent) are unsure but do not rule out using their purchasing power as a political tool. Youth in GCC countries are more likely to boycott a brand than their peers in other non-GCC countries with 37 percent claiming they would in the GCC compared to 29 percent in the non-GCC countries.

Growing internet penetration together with the rise of social media has exposed Arab youth to more global issues, sensitising them even more to global brands and political issues. Boycotts, however, are not a recent phenomenon. During times of conflict, many Arabs have shunned specific products or brands for political reasons.

10. While digital media plays an increasingly central role in the daily lives of Arab youth, television is still king.

With almost eight in ten (77 percent) young Arabs saying they own a smartphone and almost five in six (82 percent) being daily internet users, Arab youth are a truly digital generation.

The rise in smartphones and easy internet access is clearly having an impact on the way youth consume media. While television remains the most popular source of news (60 percent), 40 percent of young Arabs get their news from online sources and 25 percent from social media, significantly more than newspapers and radio.

The influence and reach of social media continues to grow with 91 percent saying they visit social media channels at least once a week.

Networks such as Facebook and Twitter are fast becoming major sources of information for youth with two fifths (41 percent) saying they use Facebook to share interesting news articles with their family and friends.

Smartphones now make up the vast majority of all phones shipped in the GCC, according to the International Data Corporation. The GCC is one of the biggest users of social media per capita in the world with youth turning online for drama, comedy, sports and news.

The same trend is sweeping across the broader Arab world. In the MENA region, 280 million YouTube videos are viewed every day and two hours of content is uploaded every single minute, according to Discover Digital Arabia.

Consumption of other social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn is also high. In February, LinkedIn launched its Arabic version amid growing demand from the region. Of the 347 million members on the LinkedIn networker, users from MENA account for over 14 million, up from five million in 2012, according to LinkedIn.

No comments: