Image of woman wearing a Hijab
Visions of change? Photo ©

Pixabay, adapted from the original.

June 2018

This year’s Arab Youth Survey reveals a fascinating picture of the Middle East and North Africa. David Knox, the British Council’s Director of Society for the region, discusses its implications.

Flashes of hope in a turbulent region

This year’s Arab Youth Survey shows that young people in the region have hope and want to contribute economically and socially, in spite of the many challenges they still face in their societies. We encounter inspirational young people across the region doing amazing things: contributing to peacebuilding, addressing the risks of recruitment to violent extremism, and building new social enterprises.

The survey suggests that young people see the Arab Spring and its aftermath, combined with the emergence of Daesh, as having pushed things off course. That view is reflected across the region. But there are bright spots. For example, from young people I’ve talked to, there is still significant positive feeling on Tunisia – a country that has transitioned from dictatorship to democracy since the Arab Spring. Tunisians themselves are cautiously optimistic, despite their economic woes. Similarly, positive government responses to issues affecting young people in Jordan have led to greater optimism for some in that country. Stability concerns rose to the top of the Arab Youth Survey in recent years, following the rise of Daesh, but also fear of contagion from ongoing conflicts. These concerns are somewhat receding. And, as the survey reflects, young people continue to reject violence and seek more secure and stable futures. 

From Syria to Yemen, regional troubles don’t go away, and there is frustration with the international order’s inability to find solutions to issues like Gaza. The West is seen as being complicit in regional problems. There is frustration that the military interventions in Iraq and Libya have not delivered the gains for citizens that were hoped for at the time and that insecurity remains high. There is widespread disillusionment with the UN-led Geneva peace process for Syria. Young people recognise that the real deals are being made elsewhere, by Russia, Turkey, and Iran – whose increasing influence is perceived through large areas of the Middle East. 

When it comes to international partners, young Arabs are not sure who to trust

When it comes to international partners, young Arabs are not sure who to trust. They feel lost and confused as to what recent geopolitics mean to their region: US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, and instability in Libya. However, that doesn’t mean that young people now naturally see other countries such as Russia as a replacements or allies, despite that country’s stronger ties with some regional governments. There is ongoing frustration at the seeming impotence of the international order to address these region-wide issues. 

Visions of change?

Yet everyday concerns focus more on economic issues, with rising prices and continued high rates of unemployment increasing pressure on young people. This helps explain why the survey results showed those in wealthier Gulf countries as more optimistic compared to their peers. In parts of North Africa many are disaffected by what some perceive as a broken social contract, and want to leave to find opportunities elsewhere. They feel thwarted and unable to transition to an independent adult life. There is a lot of interest in scholarships and studying abroad. There is a sense that these pressures are growing, but that a little more freedom and improvement in their economic situation could act as a safety valve for young people and their ambitions.

The survey respondents identified modernising the region’s education systems as one of their top priorities. Concerns about education are near universal. Those exposed to international education have a particular sense of how public education could be different. Young people recognise the system’s shortcomings and the scale of the problem. The key issue is providing them with qualifications relevant to the labour market. The region’s education systems have traditionally focused on academic education, but a greater number of opportunities for vocational education more relevant to the job market are slowly emerging. There are some gains in increased political will. For example, Egypt has recently signed an Education Sector World Bank loan. There are opportunities here for the UK, with its internationally-recognised strengths in the field.

The scale and pace of change happening in Saudi Arabia is one of the most significant things happening in the region right now

Elsewhere, the scale and pace of change happening in Saudi Arabia is one of the most significant things happening in the region right now. The survey suggests that young Saudis strongly support the Saudi Crown Prince’s ambitious reform process: Vision 2030. There are concerns about the practicality of achieving some of the more ambitious goals in the programme, but by and large young people buy into it. Some people are beginning to ask questions about whether this progress will lead to greater desire for further changes in the future. 

Social change is already pushing new boundaries – especially on the status of women. On a recent visit to Saudi Arabia I met with an organisation advocating to reform for guardianship legislation (which restricts women’s movement), and with female members of the Shura Council (an elected consultative body). Many more job opportunities are also opening up for women. One organisation I came across is engaged on economic empowerment for women, and was active campaigning in the last local elections. Civil society in the kingdom is more capable than some assume. They have the core skills in research and advocacy, but want to professionalise further and make a bigger contribution. The ‘Vision’ appears to offer them the space and opportunity to do so. There is opportunity here and in the private sector for British expertise, particularly in local enterprise development, to support with the technical ‘nuts and bolts’ capacity building that is essential for the wider reforms to succeed. Social media is also offering new opportunities for female entrepreneurs in particular. The Internet makes it easier for women to set up their own businesses and generate income from home, although in general online media space is shrinking, with increasing monitoring of online activity.

So bread and butter issues are still most important for the ordinary young people facing them. And it is worth pointing out that a growing shared spirit of internationalism amongst young people in the region can be detected – as it can perhaps elsewhere in the world. Overall, then, this is still a region beset by problems, and one whose booming youth population faces serious challenges – but does so with flashes of optimism, energy, and hope.

David Knox, British Council Director, Society, MENA

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