By James M. Dorsey
Results of a recent annual survey of Arab youth concerns about their future suggest that Arab autocracies have yet to deliver expected public services and goods, explain autocratic efforts to promote nationalism, and indicate that jobs and social freedoms are more important than political rights.
The survey provides insights that should informs autocrats’ quest for social and economic reform. It also suggests, together with the intermittent eruption of anti-government protests in different parts of the Arab world, that Western and Middle Eastern interests would be better served by more nuanced US and European approaches towards the region’s regimes.
Western governments have so far uncritically supported social and economic reform efforts rather than more forcefully sought to ensure that they would bear fruit and have been lax in pressuring regimes to at least curb excesses of political repression.
Critics charge that the survey by Dubai-based public relations firm asda’a bcw focussed on the 18-24 age group was flawed because it gave a greater weighting to views in smaller Gulf states as opposed to the region’s more populous countries such as Egypt, used small samples of up to 300 people, and did not include Qatar, Syria and Sudan.
The results constitute a mixed bag for Arab autocrats and suggest that squaring the circle between the requirements of reform and youth expectations is easier said than done and could prove to be regimes’ Achilles’ heel.
A majority of youth, weened on decades of reliance on government for jobs and social services, say governments that are unilaterally rewriting social contracts and rolling back aspects of the cradle-to-grave welfare state, have so far failed to deliver.
Even more problematic, youth expect governments to be the provider at a time that reform requires streamlining of bureaucracies, reduced state control, and stimulation of the private sector.
A whopping 78 percent of those surveyed said it was the government’s responsibility to provide jobs. An equal number expected energy to be subsidized, 65 percent complained that governments were not doing enough to support young families while 60 percent expected government to supply housing.
By the same token, 78 percent expressed concern about the quality of education on offer, including 70 percent of those in the Gulf. Yet, 80 percent of those in the Gulf said local education systems prepared them for jobs of the future as opposed to a regional total of 49 percent that felt education was lagging. Nonetheless, only 38 percent of those surveyed in the Gulf said they would opt for a local higher education.
There appeared to be a similar gap between the foreign and regional policies of governments and youth aspirations.
Assertive policies, particularly by Gulf states, that have fuelled regional conflicts, including wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the Saudi Iranian rivalry and the two-year-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar run counter to a desire among a majority of those surveyed to see an end to the disputes. In favour of Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini rulers, 67% of young Arabs see Iran as an enemy.
The survey also suggests that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contrary to common wisdom, is an issue that resonates. With 79 percent of those surveyed saying they are concerned about the dispute, the question arises whether the Gulf’s rapprochement with Israel and support for US president Donald J. Trump’s peace plan that is widely believed to disadvantage the Palestinians enjoys popular support.
The suggestion that Gulf policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be wholeheartedly supported is bolstered by the fact that the number of people surveyed this year that viewed the United States as an enemy rose to 59 percent compared to 32 percent five years ago.
Similarly, Arab leaders’ reliance on religion as a regime legitimizer and efforts to steer Islam in the direction of apolitical quietism are proving to be a double-edged sword and one probable reason why men like Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman have sought to reduce the role of the religious establishment by promoting hyper-nationalism.
Some two thirds of those surveyed felt that religion played too large a role, up from 50% four years ago. Seventy-nine percent argued that religious institutions needed to be reformed while half said that religious values were holding the Arab world back.
Publication of the survey coincided with the release by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) of its 2019 report. The report designated Saudi Arabia as one of the world's "worst violators" of religious freedoms, highlighting discrimination of Shia Muslims and Christians.
"Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary, and lack access to senior positions in the government and military,” the 234-page report said.
Leaders of the United Arab Emirates, accused by human rights groups of systematic violations, are likely to see a silver lining in the survey and a reconfirmation of their policy of economic and relative social liberalism coupled with absolute political control.
Forty-four percent of those surveyed named the UAE as their preferred country as opposed to less than 22 percent opting for Canada, the United States, Turkey or Britain.
In a white paper accompanying the survey, Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, concluded that the survey showed that “the demands and dreams of young Arabs are neither radical nor revolutionary” and that they were unlikely to “to fall for the false utopias or ‘charismatic’ leaders their parents fell for.”
In the words of Jihad Azour, the International Monetary Fund’s top Middle East person, “what is needed is a new social contract between MENA (Middle East and North Africa) governments and citizens that ensures accountability, transparency and a commitment to the principle that no one is left behind... The latest youth survey makes clear that we have a long way to go,” Mr. Azour said in his contribution to the white paper.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.