The Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018.

Youth search for new dawn as Great Shift turns to Great Drift

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. He is co-director of the emerge85 Lab, a newly launched initiative aimed at examining the key economic, commercial, and cultural drivers of change across Latin America, Asia, and Africa. 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.


Taha al Shazli wanted two things: a job and a sense of dignity. He received neither when he was unceremoniously dismissed from possible entry to the Cairo police academy school because of his father’s “lowly” station as a security guard.

When he lamented his fate to his friend Busayna, a weary-beyond-her-years teenager who was a victim of numerous assaults, she gave him some advice: use your good grades to go to university, then “go off to an Arab country and earn some money, then come back here and live like a king”. She went on: “This country doesn’t belong to us, Taha. It belongs to the people who have money. If you’d had twenty thousand pounds and used them to bribe someone, do you think anyone would have asked about your father’s job? Make money, Taha, and you’ll get everything but if you stay poor, they’ll walk all over you.”

That exchange, laden with pathos, from Ala’a Al Aswany’s emotionally searing and celebrated 2004 novel, The Yacoubian Building , was all too recognisable for many young Arabs from poorer backgrounds in North Africa. It did not matter that Taha al Shazli was a talented and hard-working student. It did not matter that he aced the academy entrance exams. He had neither baksheesh (money for a bribe) nor wasta (connections), and so he was out of luck, and his best hope was to leave.

Later that evening, Taha al Shazli began writing a letter to the President of Egypt to directly complain about his unfair treatment. Later, too, in the novel, after being detained and beaten by police, Taha found his way towards Islamist radicalism.

For many young Arabs in the Levant and North Africa, Busayna’s resignation and Taha’s anger rings all too familiar. Of course, most do not join radical movements. Rather, they emigrate, or eke out a living, or live lives of squandered potential. The Arab Uprisings (the term “Spring” can hardly be used for the killing fields of Syria) brought great hope in those early years, but has led to varying degrees of disappointment.

Indeed, as the latest Arab Youth Survey shows, an astonishing 56 per cent of young Arabs view the Arab Uprisings as a negative development, and only one out of five see the so-called Arab Spring as positive. Young Tunisians and Libyans are the most enthusiastic about the effects of the “Arab Spring”, with 50 per cent and 42 per cent respectively seeing the events as positive. Among young Egyptians, however, less than a quarter view the Arab Uprisings as a positive event, and a full 52 per cent see it as negative.

We have come a long way from the heady days of Tahrir Square, when a new world seemed to be dawning. The Great Shift that the Arab Uprisings promised has instead led to a Great Drift.

In a searingly honest article, one of the heroes of the early days of the uprising in Egypt, the former Dubai-based young Google executive Wael Ghonim, wrote recently of the fading allure of the Arab Spring and his own personal depression since leaving Egypt.

“But just as quickly as it had risen, the high of the Arab Spring began to fade,” he wrote. “Power corrupts even those with the best intentions, and I saw it do so every day. I lived it. The opposition groups were blinded by the January 25th victory. They didn’t trust each other and lacked empathy. Sometimes I found myself lacking empathy too. We were all practicing one form or another of what we criticised the Mubarak regime of doing.” For Wael Ghonim, however, there was, to borrow from the technology world he inhabits, an exit strategy. Well-educated and globalised, he could leave Egypt and find his new place in the world, in Silicon Valley or a Harvard University fellowship as he did. For the majority of young Egyptians, such exit strategies are pipe dreams.


Unemployment remains a persistent problem. On the eve of the Arab Uprisings, the Middle East and North Africa region had the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, hovering near 25 per cent. Today, after seven years of dizzying change and dramatic geopolitical shifts, one thing has remained stubbornly constant: a youth unemployment rate of 25 per cent.

There is no bigger challenge to the future of the Arab world than the jobs challenge. Young people understand this. They have been crying out this familiar refrain for the ten-year life of the Arab Youth Survey, and before. And for the past ten years, Arab governments have largely failed to deliver.

In the most recent survey, North African youth point to the need to create “new, well-paying jobs” and “cracking down on government corruption” as their top two priorities. Youth in the Levant agree on the need to create “new, well-paying jobs” – it comes in as their top wish.

Creating jobs in an era increasingly driven by automation and robotics will be the challenge of our global era, but it is a challenge that must be met. The levels of frustration seen among youth in North Africa and the Levant are unsustainable both politically and morally.

Young people in the Levant are strikingly frustrated about the fate of their region. In overwhelming numbers, young people from Lebanon to Jordan to the Palestinian Territories believe the Middle East region is going in the wrong direction: a full 85 per cent of youth. This contrasts sharply with youth from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries with a majority positive outlook toward the direction of the region and a more evenly divided split among North African youth.

Indeed, the 2018 Arab Youth Survey shows us, once again, the stark divide between the youth from “Gulfistan” and the rest. The poll findings reflect that young people in the GCC are seemingly living in a different world than their peers elsewhere. This, too, is unsustainable.

On the tenth anniversary of the Arab Youth Survey, leaders from across the Arab world now have a decade of survey data to understand what their youth want. Amid this wealth of data, good news emerges even amid the cries for support. Young people overwhelmingly reject terrorist groups, like Daesh. Young people want greater government accountability and transparency. They want jobs. They want modernised education systems. They want opportunity. They prefer to stay in their home country and build it, rather than leave. They want hope. They want dignity.

These are reasonable demands, familiar to young people from Africa to Asia to Latin America. A detailed examination of a decade of Arab Youth Survey findings reflects a young Arab population that is frustrated but pragmatic, hungry for meaningful work, and dubious of utopianist solutions.

There is a moment at the very end of the 1962 Naguib Mahfouz novel, The Autumn Quail , set in the post 1952 Egyptian Revolution environment, amid the fading allure of that movement, when a former senior civil servant comes face-to-face with a young man he once jailed. The young man sought him out in a Cairo square under the statue of Saad Zaghlul, a prominent late 19th and early 20th century Egyptian revolutionary and statesman. The young man wanted to talk, but the drunken former civil servant only saw menace in him, and dismissed his efforts at discussion.

When the young man slinked away, the former civil servant had second thoughts and ran after him. “I could catch up to him, he thought, if I didn’t waste any more time hesitating,” Mahfouz wrote.

There has been too much hesitation. Arab governments have largely failed their youth, and their “revolutions” have been disappointing, but I will not bet against the promise of Arab youth.

There is a moment, today, without hesitation, when the promise of Arab youth can be channelled into results. For the Taha al Shazlis and the Busaynas of the Arab world – and beyond. Or it can be lost, swirling amid the Great Drift.

Watch Findings Debated

Watch our panel of experts discuss the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018. The wide-ranging conversation takes on hot-button issues facing youth today, including how they view their future, the digital revolution and shifting attitudes to the region’s friends and enemies.