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Arab youth

According to a new survey, 18- to 24-year-olds from this group do not necessarily want to emigrate to the West, but rather to live in a country that works

Moisés Naím
Youngsters protest in Algeria in 2019 for fair presidential elections.
Youngsters protest in Algeria in 2019 for fair presidential elections.RYAD KRAMDI (AFP)

It was once jihadists, now it’s white supremacists. For years, Islamist terrorism was seen as the major threat to Europe and the United States. But not anymore. Now our worries have shifted to Covid-19 and to white extremist violence.

Terrorism from white supremacists is very real and on the rise. According to FBI Director Christopher Wray, “racially motivated violent extremism, specifically of the sort that advocates for the superiority of the white race, is a persistent, evolving threat.” The FBI has officially raised the threat level assigned to these groups, putting them at the same rank as the Islamic State. Wray also revealed that while the FBI investigated 850 cases of white supremacist terrorism in the US last year, it now had 2,000 open cases. This terrorism is not just an American phenomenon. In recent years, its presence and violent actions have also increased in Europe and Oceania.

Of course, the fact that jihadists have stopped making headlines does not mean that the conditions that fueled their violence have diminished. Frustration and despair are still all too common among young Arabs. One indicator of the extent of young Arab frustration is that about half of this group has considered emigrating from their home country. In some Arab nations the number of young people wanting to leave is overwhelming – 77% in Lebanon, 69% in Libya, and 56% in Jordan, for example.

This data comes from a telling opinion poll conducted by ASDA’A-BCW, a public relations firm in Dubai. For 12 years, the company has carried out an annual survey of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 living in 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The results of these opinion polls often clash with deep-rooted perceptions.

The backlash against corruption is one of the factors driving support among young people for the wave of anti-government street protests that have become frequent in countries such as Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Iraq

For 40% of those surveyed, religion is the main driver of identity – more than their family (19%) or their nationality (17%). But that religious identity does not translate into support for governments that also define themselves religiously. The young people surveyed want governments that are less corrupt and more efficient, capable of creating jobs, and improving the quality of education. Eighty-seven percent are concerned about unemployment and more than half do not believe that their current government is capable of solving the problem.

Forty-one percent of those surveyed said that corruption is widespread in their country, and 36% believe that there is government corruption. This backlash against corruption is one of the factors driving support among young people for the wave of anti-government street protests that have become frequent in countries such as Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Iraq, among others. As in other parts of the world where the streets have become an important scene of political protests, in the Arab world these have been fueled by social media. Five years ago, 25% of young people surveyed reported that social media was their main source of news. Now that percentage has rocketed to 79%.

The near-universal use of the internet by young people makes one of the poll’s findings especially surprising. When asked about the main determinant of their individual identity, only a tiny 5% said that their gender was the most defining factor. Since the sample of the interviewees was designed so that there was an equal number of women and men, the small weight the respondents gave to their gender identity is striking. However, this is consistent with another surprising result: 64% of the young women surveyed think that, in their country, women have the same rights as men and 11% believe that women enjoy more rights than men. Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t offer an explanation for this unusual finding.

Finally, another interesting revelation from this survey is the huge appeal the United Arab Emirates has for the young. Thirty-four percent of respondents think the UAE has increased its influence in the region, second only to Saudi Arabia (39%). The Emirates are – for the ninth year running – the country where most young Arabs want to live: 46% declared it their favorite destination to emigrate to, more than the 33% who prefer the US. This is perhaps the most striking result: it shows that these young people don’t want to live in the West, necessarily. They want to live in a country that works.

The frustrations and expectations of these young Arabs present formidable challenges to their respective governments. Even before the pandemic and its devastating economic consequences, these 200 million young people faced the highest unemployment rates in the world and governments that were intolerably corrupt and incapable of undertaking the necessary reforms. Now the situation is much worse.

As a consequence, in many Arab countries, young people will take to the streets to protest. In others they will take planes, boats, and cars to migrate to new countries, because they feel that they cannot change the useless and corrupt governments they are now stuck with.

We will have to see what the polls of young Arabs tell us next year.

Twitter @moisesnaim

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