The Expert Commentary

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

Political fatigue among arab youth is not only about ending conflict,
it is about building futures

Khalid Al Maeena

Faisal Al Yafai

Faisal Al Yafai is a journalist and partner at Hildebrand Nord, a strategic consultancy based in London. He has worked as a journalist in several Middle Eastern countries and was previously an investigative journalist for The Guardian in London and a documentary journalist for the BBC. He has reported from across the Middle East, from Eastern Europe and Africa. His columns on foreign policy, economics and international affairs are published and syndicated in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. A frequent guest on television networks such as CNN, the BBC and France 24, he has also served as a Churchill Fellow in Lebanon and Indonesia.

Political fatigue is real. Those of us who report on and analyse the region may well find its complex and evolving politics interesting, but we should never forget, as the apocryphal Chinese proverb has it, that to live in interesting times is a curse.

For most of the young people of the Middle East, their lives have been lived predominantly in interesting times.

The wars and revolutions, the invasions and occupations of recent years have meant that a majority of young Arabs have some experience of the tragedies of life, either first hand, or through the extended experience of friends, families and colleagues. Even the Gulf states, the most gilded of the Arab countries, have not escaped the impact of economic upheaval and the repercussions of wars. To live in the Middle East, at this particular moment in history, is to live through serious and sudden political changes.

Small wonder, then, that one of the findings of the Arab Youth Survey is the belief among young Arabs that it is time to put an end to regional conflicts, regardless of how those conflicts conclude. The price of peace, according to those surveyed, is worth it.

That ought not to be surprising. The Middle East is overwhelmingly young – at least 65 per cent of the population is under the age of 30 – and their concerns are the concerns of youth: how to build futures, families and careers. Those goals require stability and certainty: the stability that encourages individuals to invest their money and energy in businesses and careers, and the certainty that sudden political upheaval won’t scatter their families and upend all they have built.

A certain political fatigue, after so many years of conflict and political changes, is to be expected. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Syria’s civil war, where the survey’s findings suggest strongly that an end to the conflict, regardless of the political outcome, is the preferred view of young Arabs. After eight years of brutal conflict, with millions displaced and a civilisation in ruins, it is no wonder that so many Arabs simply want the war to end.

Given two options – that the war should not end until free elections could be held, or that the war should end regardless of whether Bashar Al Assad stayed in power – young Arabs overwhelmingly (73 per cent) chose the latter.

Intriguingly, those numbers remained consistent across the region, with Arabs in the Levant, which has disproportionately borne the brunt of the war, responding in similar numbers (73 per cent) to those in North Africa (70 per cent), which is slightly removed from the conflict.

Yet the apparent political fatigue of young Arabs is not merely about ending conflicts; it is also about building futures.

Look again at the top obstacles facing the Middle East as identified by young Arabs and while geopolitical conflicts rank in the top ten, the top two obstacles, by a considerable margin, are the rising cost

of living (56 per cent) and unemployment (45 per cent), with slow economic growth as the fourth issue.

These are bread-and-butter political issues and they are at the heart of every society, not only in the Middle East but across the world. Young people everywhere want to look forward and build their futures and they are quick to identify the barriers that stop them doing so.

In fact, all of the other findings on this topic can be seen in that light, as creating barriers to the progress of some young Arabs.

The concern young Arabs have over the Palestinian-Israeli issue; fears over terrorism; and an uptick in fears that relations between Sunni and Shia communities are getting worse; all are issues that could hinder political stability and economic growth.

The last of these – tensions between Sunni and Shia communities – is particularly interesting. This Arab generation, those who came of age after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, must be the first for a long time for whom divisions between Sunnis and Shias were so central to their societies.

And those sorts of divisions are incredibly dangerous in countries as mixed as many in the Middle East. Most of the Arab republics – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – have significant Shia populations and in all there have been long histories of mixed marriages. Against that background, tensions between communities can mean the destruction of families and businesses. The tensions between Sunnis and Shias have, mainly for political reasons, become violent in a number of countries, but the findings suggest that even low-level tensions can be detrimental to the society, and therefore a barrier to progress for young Arabs.

The “Lack of Arab unity” finding, identified as the number three obstacle facing the region, is intriguing and merits further investigation. It could refer to any of the current splits within the broader Arab world: the Saudi-led diplomatic crisis with Qatar, divisions between Lebanon and Syria over the Syrian civil war, or a lack of unity over the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. But all create obstacles to what ought to be collegiate, and mutually beneficial, relations between Arab countries, something that particularly the young, who are more likely to travel for work or education, are wary of.

At a time of so much division and conflict in the Middle East, it should not be a surprise that young Arabs – those who will build the future of the region – are deeply concerned at the impact of such political uncertainty, and want that uncertainty to end. Living in interesting times gets tedious. If the youth of the Arab world want to put the conflicts of the Arab world behind them, it is so they can start to look forward to their futures.