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Arab Spring generation: U.S. not first ally any more but they would like to live there

Christian Fernsby |
Young Arab men and women in the Middle East and North Africa, a cohort that has lived through the Arab Spring, the rise and fall of Daesh (ISIS) and the Covid-19 pandemic, are charting a new course as they contemplate their future, with a full 82 percent saying that promoting stability is more important than promoting democracy.

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This is in stark contrast to the results of the 2009 Arab Youth Survey, in which 92% of young Arabs said living in a democratic country was their single-most important priority. A majority in the GCC (57%), 62% in North Africa and 72% in the Levant say that democracy in the region will never work.

These were some of the top findings of the 14th Annual ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey, the largest study of the Middle East & North Africa's largest demographic, its 200 million plus youth, unveiled today in Dubai.

ASDA'A BCW, the region's leading communications consultancy, commissioned IDS Research & Consultancy to conduct face-to-face interviews with 3,400 Arab citizens aged 18 to 24 in 50 cities across 17 Arab states from May 13 to June 16, 2022. The sample was equally split between men and women.

Most of the so-called Arab Spring Generation, which entered adulthood after the momentous events of the early 2010s, say they have more freedoms today because of the protests and that their voice matters to their leadership. A full 59% of respondents say that women have equal rights.

While 87% of Arab youth in the GCC say their government has the right policies to tackle the issues most important to young people, fewer than six in 10 in North Africa, and barely a fifth (21%) in Levant say the same.

Against this backdrop, more young people say they would prefer to work for themselves or with their family (28%) than for the government or the private sector.

The uncertainty of young Arab men and women today is arguably most conspicuous in their attitudes towards religion.

Overall, 41% say their religion is most important to their identity (a 7% increase compared to 2021), followed by their nationality (18%), their family or tribe (17%) and cultural heritage (7%), though the attachment to religion is less in the Levant (24%).

And nearly three-quarters overall (70%) and a clear majority in all three regions express concern about the loss of traditional values and culture.

Most youth in all three regions also agree that preserving the region's religious and cultural identity is more important than creating a more globalized society (65% say this overall).

And 70% of youth in the GCC and 60% in the North Africa say that Sharia law should be the basis of their legal systems rather than civil or common law, though just over 4 in 10 in the Levant agree.

In contrast, 73% of Arab youth overall (78% in the GCC, 76% in North Africa and 65% in the Levant) say that religion plays too big a role in Middle Eastern life, and more than three-quarters (77%) say that religious institutions in the region require reform.

In a further sign of today's shifting global allegiances, Arab youth now view China, Turkey and Russia as stronger allies of their countries than historical powerbrokers the U.S., the United Kingdom and France.

This year, three-quarters (78%) of Arab youth say China is either a strong ally or somewhat of an ally of their country, followed by Turkey (77%) and Russia (72%). The UK and France were the fourth-ranked strongest allies on 70%, followed by the United States (63%) in sixth.

Despite the thaw in relations heralded by the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, Arab youth remain steadfast in their opposition to Israel, with 88% saying the country is a strong enemy or somewhat of an enemy. Nearly two-thirds (62%) say the same of Iran.

Perhaps most surprising is the stance of Arab youth on the Ukraine conflict, with 31% saying they hold the U.S. and NATO primarily responsible for the conflict, while 18% say Russia is mostly to blame. More youth in the Levant (41%) and North Africa (29%) than other areas surveyed said that accountability rests with NATO and the U.S., while GCC youth are more divided on the issue, with 22% saying Russia is to blame and 21% saying NATO/the U.S. are at fault.

The U.S. continues to have by far the most influence on the Arab world, according to the research. More than a third (36%) say the U.S. has the most influence, compared with just 4% who say China is the most influential. After the U.S., Saudi Arabia (11%), Israel (9%), the UAE (7%), and Iran (7%) are said to be the most influential nations.

The fact that the U.S. still holds sway over the region could explain why most Arab youth want the country to play a less prominent role in MENA affairs. Three-quarters (73%) say they either strongly or somewhat support the disengagement of the U.S. from the Middle East, with the proportion of Arab youth taking this stance consistent across the GCC, Levant and North Africa.

Arab youth may be wary of Western political influence in the region, but they clearly approve of Western countries as places to live.

After the United Arab Emirates, voted for by 57% of young Arabs, the top five countries they say they would most like to live in are the United States (24%), Canada (20%), France (15%) and Germany (15%).

And for the ninth straight the year, the U.S. is also the country most Arab youth say they would like their own to be like, again after the UAE (37%). Around a quarter (22%) of young Arabs say they would like their own country to emulate the U.S., followed by Canada (18%), Germany (14%), France (11%) and Turkey (11%).

Bleak employment opportunities are encouraging Arab youth to emigrate, with nearly half (45%) saying they are either actively trying to emigrate or have considered emigrating – up from 42% in 2020 and 33% last year. Canada (22%), Germany (19%) and the U.S. (17%) are the three most popular destinations – the UAE is ranked fourth (14%).

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