The Expert Commentary

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

The Arab Youth Survey at 10:
bearing witness to the sweep of history in the Middle East

Sunil John

Sunil John

Sunil John is the founder of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller and President, Middle East, of Burson Cohn & Wolfe. 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. He also leads the agency’s research arm, PSB Middle East, and its branding and digital marketing subsidiary, Proof Integrated Communications. Sunil is the first PR professional in the Middle East to receive the Outstanding Individual Achievement SABRE Award in the EMEA region from The Holmes Report.

If a political scientist were to write a thesis on what caused the Arab Spring, he or she could save themselves a lot of trouble and just read the 2010 Arab Youth Survey. Before the protests began in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, our Survey had telegraphed all the warning signs. The calls for democracy had moved to the top of the agenda in many countries, coupled with deep concern at the rising cost of living. The gap between the rich and poor was seen as widening, and many young Arabs in countries such as Egypt expressed little faith that their nations had made any kind of recovery from the global financial crisis.

As the protests peaked in 2011, our Survey that year showed a surge in optimism: young Arabs felt their future was bright.

The immediate years after the Arab Spring, however, saw those hopes fade. In later years, amid the rise of Daesh – itself a phenomenon that our Survey suggests was fueled by a lack of opportunities for youth – a desire for security and safety replaced calls for democratic reforms. Kitchen table issues, specifically well-paying jobs and a modern education system, returned to the fore in our annual Survey.

This year, the annual ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey turns ten. We have been accurately tracking the hopes, aspirations and fears of Arab youth for a decade now. While our first survey in 2008 was received with a mix of curiosity and suspicion, it laid the groundwork for subsequent Surveys and, more importantly, caught the interest of governments, business and media the world over.

After all, this is a young region – 65 per cent of the population of the Middle East is under the age of 30. What young people think about their futures, their careers, their families, their governments; their role models, what media they consume; how they wish to spend their money – all this is important to every government, every business and every institution operating in this complex region.

Surveys generally tell you one of two things: what you already know, and what you should know. If our first Survey, in hindsight, tended towards the former, the subsequent ones are very much the latter. Every year, we provide evidence-based insights, giving governments, the private sector and civil society institutions critical information and analysis to inform decision-making and policy formation.

Ultimately, we are gaining a better understanding of the region and, by putting the information in the public domain, we are building bridges between the Middle East and international communities, businesses and NGOs who want to know what the region’s youth really think and how they want to shape their future.

Every year, we are invited to meet with senior government and private sector decision-makers across the region and beyond to give them detailed briefings on the results. Besides the traditional launch event in Dubai, the Survey is presented in political circles in DC, London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin.

The Arab Youth Survey 2018

This year’s Survey reveals that a majority of young people in the region view the legacy of the Arab Spring negatively; indeed, in those countries most affected by the Arab Spring, only youth in Tunisia mostly view it positively. That’s understandable – the Spring failed to live up to the high expectations of the Tahrir Square generation. But its legacy has imprinted itself in the lives of today’s youth in important ways, all of them reflected in this year’s key findings. Specifically, governments appear to be listening.

Witness the stunning scope of reform we have seen in Saudi Arabia over the past year, most of which is focused on creating a better environment, socially and economically, for the Kingdom’s youthful population. (And, we must say, spearheaded by a young leader, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who, at 32, would himself have fallen within our Survey’s parameters for respondents in its early years.) The UAE has appointed a Minister of State for Youth Affairs; its unstinting focus on youth is perhaps a contributing factor in that nation’s continuing resonance with the region’s young people as a role model and the “city on a hill”.

And then there’s the digital revolution. Unlike the Arab Spring, this is seen as overwhelmingly positive by Arab youth – but it must be remembered, the Arab Spring would not have happened, or at least not on the same scale, without the digital revolution. It was the rise of smartphones, new social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and the roll-out of mobile internet across much of the region that were catalysts for those dramatic events.

If the region is to show real progress on the key concerns that thread through every single one of our 10 Surveys – jobs and education – then leaders must not just embrace it themselves, they must harness it to deliver the quality education and the well-paying jobs that the region’s youth so desperately need.

Youth unemployment in the region has been a dangerous constant throughout the history of our Survey, stubbornly holding at 25 per cent. In addition, it is not well-known that 85 million adults in the Middle East are illiterate. This poses a tremendous problem that governments in the region must tackle seriously, because, after all, a modern education system is needed to deliver a generation of young Arabs who will be ready to take on the jobs of the future that will emerge in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

We’re seeing real progress on this in the GCC, certainly, where governments have finally started acting on long-promised and much needed initiatives to diversify their economies from oil – their hands being forced by the crash in the price of hydrocarbons. With oil at $70 a barrel, though, it remains to be seen whether governments will have the willpower to stick to this path, and drive through sometimes painful, but extremely critical reforms.

If they did roll back these reforms, a return to the largesse enjoyed by generations before may indeed be welcomed by many. But it is the region’s long-term future that is at stake here – today’s youth may thank them for easing their burdens now, but tomorrow’s generations will never forgive them.

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.