A GENERATION IN TRANSITION

Sunil John

Sunil John is the founder and chief executive of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller. He has been at the heart of the public relations business in the Middle East for more than two decades. During this time he has shaped ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller to be the benchmark public relations consultancy in the Arab world. Sunil also leads the agency’s research firm PSB Middle East and its digital marketing subsidiary, Proof Integrated Communications. Sunil is the first PR professional in the Middle East to receive the Outstanding Individual Achievement SABRE Award (EMEA) from The Holmes Report in May 2014 and has been ranked No. 12 in The GCC’s 100 most powerful Indians by Arabian Business magazine.

This is the eighth year that ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller has published its Arab Youth Survey, a unique and valuable insight into the mindset of this region’s most important demographic – its youth.

Conceived before the tumultuous days of the Arab Spring, each Survey has provided a remarkable snapshot of a region – and a people – in transition.  This year’s Survey is our most compelling yet, highlighting the ambitions, hopes and very real fears of young people at a time when the region is facing its most serious challenges for a generation or more. 

This year, for the first time, we have asked expert commentators from the region, Europe and the US to analyse the responses, providing fresh insight and context to help further understand the Survey findings.

From the open conflicts in Syria and Yemen, forcing millions to leave their homes and their families for an uncertain future, the re-emergence of Iran as a regional power to the financial pressures being felt by the dramatic fall in oil prices, this year’s Survey offers a sobering look at a region at a crossroads. 

There are 200 million young people in the Middle East and North Africa. Always spirited, often frustrated, they represent either the region’s biggest dividend, or its biggest threat. It is my personal view that they are a dividend; a wellspring of untapped potential to rival any oil or gas field, and a net benefit to the region and the world. The governments of the Middle East and North Africa cannot afford to let them down.

That’s not to say that the findings are all gloomy. On the contrary, one of the key takeaways from this year’s Survey, and the preceding ones, is that the region’s youth still find glimpses of optimism in the face of adversity. This should not be too surprising, what with exuberance, self-belief and positive energy being the hallmarks of youth. 

Most heartening is how little appeal extremist groups like Daesh (ISIS) actually have among young people; the group’s savage tactics and twisted interpretation of Islam are roundly rejected by the overwhelming majority of young Arabs.

The rise of Iran, too, has given some surprising results. While Arab youth are wary of the new power in the region, almost half backed the nuclear deal that brought Tehran in from the cold. And while most young Arabs believe the Sunni-Shia divide has grown over the past five years, and is helping to fuel regional unrest, it seems the youth of today are increasingly concerned about the role they believe religion plays in fueling conflict. 

“This year’s Survey is published as ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller marks its 15th year in business. As the region’s leading public relations consultancy, we understand the value of evidence-based insights, and we have witnessed how these findings are being used to help policy makers and businesses understand and reach out to youth. This Survey is our way of giving something of real value back to the community in which we have prospered, and it is an initiative of which I am very proud.”

If there has been one constant over the near decade we have been compiling this report, it has been employment, or rather the lack of it. This year’s Survey adds a dangerous dimension; young people today see a lack of job opportunities as the single biggest factor driving a minority of their brethren into the arms of Daesh and other extremist groups. 

The stark reality is that fewer than half of all Arab youth believe they have decent prospects in the jobs market. The International Labour Organisation believes up to 75 million young people alone are jobless in the Arab world. This depressing statistic, and the corresponding pessimism felt by so many responders to our Survey, is a damning indictment of the governments that have failed to address this key issue.

Indeed, unemployment and a lack of opportunity was the main trigger behind the Arab Spring. But the surge of hope in those heady days has given way, just five years later, to a grim realism in the minds of the region’s young people. With the legacy of those uprisings being viewed increasingly negatively, young people today now favour stability over democracy. This puts them in a dilemma: young people also want to see more personal freedom and less restrictions on what they can say; at the same time, this freedom is being curbed by their governments, ostensibly in the interest of the very stability they crave. 

And, in another sign that youth are struggling to make sense of a changing order, while the overwhelming majority are concerned about the impact of declining oil revenues, they still want their governments to continue to subsidise electricity, energy and fuel. 

This year’s Survey is published as ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller marks its 15th year in business. As the region’s leading public relations consultancy, we understand the value of evidence-based insights, and we have witnessed  how these findings are being used to help policy makers and businesses understand and reach out to youth. This Survey is our way of giving something of real value back to the community in which we have prospered, and it is an initiative of which I am very proud.   

There are 200 million young people in the Middle East and North Africa. Always spirited, often frustrated, they represent either the region’s biggest dividend, or its biggest threat. It is my personal view that they are a dividend; a wellspring of untapped potential to rival any oil or gas field, and a net benefit to the region and the world. The governments of the Middle East and North Africa cannot afford to let them down.