Young Arabs may have been at the forefront of the uprisings that changed a decades-old political order but a year on from the Arab uprisings they are more concerned with economics than the struggle for democracy, according to a new survey.
The 2,500 young people polled also felt that political corruption was on the increase – despite it being a catalyst for the protests against long-serving leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia – but said they remained optimistic about the future.
The fourth annual Asda’a Burson-Marsteller youth survey indicated that fair wages and home ownership have displaced political freedom as the main aspiration in a region where two-thirds of the population are under 30.
With youth unemployment in the region averaging 25 per cent – and 30 per cent for women – the concerns highlight the economic challenges that face Arab states attempting to implement political reforms. While the labour force participation rate for youth averages more than 50 per cent globally, in the Middle East it sits at less than a third, according to World Bank data.
“Lots of governments in the region are implementing reforms and taking steps to be more inclusive, but as social and political inclusion improve, the youth voice is being heard on economic issues like jobs, wages, housing and the cost of living,” said Nader Kabbani, director of research and policy at Silatech, a Qatari-funded initiative aiming to connect Arab youth with economic opportunities.
“But don’t think that Arab governments can rest on their laurels; the bottom line is the youth still expect political reforms to happen – if governments go back to business as usual, you would see a re-emergence of the Arab spring.”
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at Emirates University, added: “If there is one thing that binds them [Arab youth] together it’s to secure their job, their future.”
Economic concerns are rising to the surface amid regional political upheaval. Of the young people from each of the 12 Arab countries surveyed – from the wealthy Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to post-conflict Iraq and Libya – 82 per cent said being paid a fair wage was their main worry. Just 58 per cent said living in a democratic country was a priority, down from 68 per cent a year prior.
The rising cost of living was another concern for the 18 to 24-year-olds surveyed last December and January. Sixty-three per cent were very concerned about living costs, compared to 41 per cent who were concerned about human rights.
The shift toward economic grievances was not the only trend noted in the study. After a year where political alliances with foreign powers were put to the test and young activists looked abroad for recognition or support, perceptions of major foreign powers has shifted.
While France, the UK and the US all helped rebel forces overcome the Libyan regime, France’s more vocal stance on Libya and Syria appears to have helped it become the favourite foreign country of young Arabs.
While just 31 per cent of youth said they felt very favourable toward the US – down from 41 per cent a year ago – 46 per cent held such positive views of France. In the 2010 survey, just 30 per cent felt the same way.
The impact of the Arab spring on young people varied according to local experiences of the year’s political awakenings. In the conservative monarchy of Saudi Arabia, where sporadic demonstrations in the oil-rich eastern province have been met with a forceful police crackdown and a vast new public spending programme, youths identified civil unrest as a greater challenge than lack of democracy.
By contrast, more than 55 per cent of young Egyptians, who are still charting the rooute towards free elections, identified a lack of democracy as the region’s greatest challenge. The post-revolutionary states of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia also polled the highest levels of desire to live in a democracy.
Three-quarters of those surveyed say their governments have become more trustworthy since the Arab spring, with Libya, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain polling highest.
But political corruption, one of the causes of the uprisings, has become a bigger worry, with 42 per cent identifying wrongdoing in public life as the region’s biggest challenge – a threefold increase on last year.
Growing optimism was nonetheless a hallmark of the survey, with three-quarters of respondents regarding the region as better off today than before the tumultuous political events of last year. Libyans, who overthrew Muammer Gaddafi last year and have yet to hold elections for a new government, were the most hopeful for the future, while Lebanese were the most pessimistic.
And one of the Arab states least visibly affected by mounting unrest has become a favoured destination for the region’s youth. A third of those surveyed said they would like to live in the United Arab Emirates, while a quarter cited the Gulf state as their preferred development model.
More than a third of UAE youths said their homeland was their ideal residence, but only 12 per cent picked it as a development model, with more opting for western economies.
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