The Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey 2019.

A pragmatic generation – neither radical nor revolutionary

Afshin Molavi

Afshin Molavi

Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, where he writes broadly on emerging markets, Middle East political economies, the New Silk Road, and the intersection of geopolitics and the global economy. Molavi’s writings over the years have appeared in the Financial Times, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, BloombergView, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Businessweek, Journal of Commerce, National Geographic and Institutional Investor, and he has been a regular guest on CNN, BBC, Al-Arabiya, Sky News Arabia and other channels. He is the founder and editor of the New Silk Road Monitor.

Fadi Ghandour, one of the Arab world’s leading entrepreneurs and technology investors, once famously extolled the virtues of the online world by saying: “there is no wasta on the internet”. Wasta, of course, refers to the elite connections that pave the way for business or political success at the highest levels, or a job or a university slot at lower levels. The overuse of wasta corrodes societies, impairs growth, fuels unrest and squanders the potential of so many young Arabs who simply want the dignity of fair opportunity.

Consider this wasta-free transaction that took place in late March 2019: the global ride-sharing company Uber paid $3.1 billion to acquire its Dubai-based regional rival, Careem. Or this wasta-free transaction: In 2017, global e-commerce giant Amazon purchased Arab world e-commerce player Souq.com for nearly $600 million. What mattered to Uber and Amazon were the numbers, not wasta, and Careem and Souq had been delivering impressive numbers with their rapid growth across the Middle East and North Africa region, as well as Pakistan.

As a result, the founders of companies like Souq.com and Careem have become admired figures among Arab youth; individuals who worked hard – very hard – played it straight, and achieved success. Social media, the number one news source for young Arabs, (Finding 10) buzzed with praise for Careem. To many young Arabs, these companies have demonstrated what societies without wasta can achieve.

This might help explain why, for the eighth year in a row in the Arab Youth Survey, young Arabs have chosen the UAE as the country they would most like to live in and emulate. While no country is wasta-free, it’s no accident that both Souq.com and Careem are based in Dubai. They benefit from both world-class infrastructure of connectivity and access to talent, but also one of the more meritocratic – even cut-throat – entrepreneurial environments in the region.

When asked their perceptions of the UAE, the number one item that came up is “a wide range of work opportunities”. In second place came “safety and security” and in third came “generous salary packages”. Their perceptions were that the UAE offered them fair opportunity and a decent chance to get a decent job, and that, alas, remains a rare thing.

Over the years, the Arab Youth Survey has demonstrated in clear and compelling ways the pragmatic desires of Arab youth for jobs, security, better education, and more government accountability, while rejecting terrorism, extremism, and corruption.

It is the failure to achieve those aspirations by governments still riddled with corruption ruling societies weighed down by wasta that has likely led to rising levels of depression and anxiety among Arab youth, as a 2018 report in Al-Fanar Media, a chronicler of education trends in the Arab world, noted. Justin Thomas, associate professor in psychology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, was quoted as saying in that report, “everywhere you look, you will find depression”. The Arab Youth Survey shows that nearly one in three young Arabs know someone with anxiety or depression (Finding 8). Given the stigma associated with those diseases, also shown in the survey, the real numbers are likely to be higher. This might help explain why young Arabs perceive that drug use is rising among their cohorts (Finding 7).

In such instances, when individuals face a crisis of meaning or anxiety or depression, they might call on a higher authority for solace. But in a remarkable finding, two out of three young Arabs believe that “religion plays too big of a role in the Middle East” and a whopping 79 per cent believe that “the Arab world needs to reform its religious institutions” (Finding 1). This is not to suggest that young Arabs have become irreligious – the data does not show that – but it clearly demonstrates that young Arabs are losing faith in the governance of their religious institutions and that they would like to see less religion in the governing of national affairs.

For those of us who have been watching the Arab Youth Survey’s findings from their inception, this finding should come as little surprise. After all, youth that consistently rate jobs, security (both physical and financial), and opportunity at the top of their list of desires would, therefore, value those institutions and entities that could help them achieve those goals – and religion is not the obvious choice. A few great scholars like Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, who has developed a theological architecture of cosmopolitanism and pluralism that would appeal to Arab youth, might help bridge that gap – but the gap seems even too large for a figure like that.

When young Arabs feel down, who do they look to for help? Surprisingly, the same institution that, in many ways, contributed to the squandering of their potential: their governments. A majority of young Arabs believe that the government’s social contract with its people does not only apply to healthcare and education and security, but also jobs and housing (Finding 2). Those same young Arabs hungry for wasta-free opportunity don’t mind a social safety net either.

In the end, the Arab Youth Survey has demonstrated, once again, that the demands and dreams of young Arabs are neither radical nor revolutionary. They are the aspirations of a pragmatic generation unlikely to fall for the false utopias or “charismatic” leaders their parents fell for. They are too busy looking for a job, and scrolling through social media.