The Expert Commentary

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

A blighted region leaves little hope for Levant’s youth

Osama Al-Sharif

Osama Al-Sharif

Osama Al-Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator from Amman, Jordan. Educated in the US and Britain he published a number of newspapers and magazines in Jordan and edited leading Arabic and English language dailies in Amman, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. In the mid-1990s he co-founded and managed Arabia.com, the Arab world’s first portal. In 2004 he was appointed to the Royal Commission for the National Agenda in Jordan where he drafted the media law. Currently he contributes political analysis on the region to Gulf News, Arab News, Jordan Times and the Middle East Institute.

No region in the Arab world has been as severely tested over the past two decades as the Levant. Comprising Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, the Levant’s people have endured foreign invasions, sectarian strife and uprisings. In the process, the world could do little but watch the Levant lose much of its unique cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, rich archaeological history and exceptional human potential, not to mention billions of dollars in missed economic growth.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003, with its regional reverberations, was a watershed event for tens of millions of people living in these five states and territories. That geopolitical disaster has been blamed for a series of regional upsets that include foreign meddling in local affairs, the flare-up of sectarian fighting, the waning of central governments, the massive usurpation of national wealth, the emergence of extremist groups and foreign jihadists, the displacement of millions and the horrors of catastrophic civil wars.

Some countries were directly consumed by turmoil, such as Iraq and Syria. Others, namely Lebanon and Jordan, were challenged politically, economically and socially by the aftershocks of what was happening near their borders. The Palestinians continued to suffer under Israeli occupation as hopes for a political settlement based on the two-state solution crumbled.

It is no surprise then that the 2018 ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey has found that youth’s outlook in the Levant is increasingly bleak, particularly over the past two years. Compared to their peers in the GCC and North Africa regions, young Arabs in the Levant are by far the most pessimistic. Eighty-six per cent believe that their country of residence is going in the wrong direction, compared to 46 per cent in North Africa and just 7 per cent in the GCC.

Aside from the political disarray engulfing countries like Iraq and Syria, all the Levant countries are suffering from economic stagnation. In Jordan, where more than 70 per cent of the population is under 30 years of age, successive governments have failed to address the challenges of growing unemployment, which now stands at 18 per cent. The rate is higher among young men, and is almost 30 per cent among young women.

The Palestinian territories are not doing any better. In the besieged Gaza Strip, where 2 million Palestinians continue to endure a 10-year economic blockade, 80 per cent of the population relies on food handouts to survive and more than 60 per cent of those aged between 15 and 29 in Gaza are out of work; more than twice as high as the rate in the West Bank.

On paper, Lebanese youth appear to be doing better, with the unemployment rate standing at about 7 per cent and where those aged between 15 and 24 make up about 16 per cent of the population. But most young Lebanese dream of finding a job in the GCC, especially the UAE. And with more than 1 million Syrian refugees now in Lebanon, the economy remains under tremendous pressure.

Iraqi youth – those aged between 15 and 24 years old – make up about 19 per cent of the population of 32 million. The unemployment rate now stands at about 14 per cent, but with a dysfunctional political system, rampant corruption and more than 3 million internally displaced people and 8.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, the reality is much worse for young Iraqis than the statistics suggest.

That leaves Syria, a country left in ruins by more than seven years of bloody civil war that is still raging in places, and with military interventions by no less than four foreign powers and dozens of armed militias. The UN estimates that 13.5 million Syrians depend on humanitarian assistance, of which more than 6 million are internally displaced and around 5 million are refugees outside Syria. One can only speculate on the social and economic effects the civil war will have on generations of Syrians.

With this bleak reality in mind it is not difficult to understand why a majority of young Arabs in the Levant, 72 per cent, believe that their best days are behind them. This is a dangerous finding that warrants attention from national governments and the international community alike.

Despair among the youth speaks volumes about the future of such an important, but volatile, region of the Arab world. It explains how the so-called Arab Spring was triggered by disenfranchised youth in its early days before it was corrupted and hijacked by ideologically motivated opportunists. Arab youth in most Levant countries wanted social and economic justice and an equitable political system. They wanted a future where their right to find jobs, enjoy social and economic stability and progress could be a reality.

This year, though, could provide some muchneeded relief. Elections are to be held in Iraq and Lebanon, and they just might put both countries on the path to slow recovery. Syria remains a global challenge, but the guns have at least stopped firing across much of the country. Jordan is attempting, once again, to restructure its economy. The Palestinians will have to wait until the international community can summon the will to end their decades-old suffering. By the end of the day the future of this region rests on its youth. This is why the current trend must be reversed.

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.