Expert Commentary

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

Time for Arab youth dividend to pay off

Sunil John

Sunil John

In 2008, while introducing the findings of our first Arab Youth Survey, I observed that the study aimed at understanding the largest demographic of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region - its over 200 million youth constituting more than half the Arab world’s population. I had further explained that It is imperative to understand the hearts and minds of Arab youth “to ensure that they have the means to realise their full potential.”

But why just young people? Why invest in a survey to map their hopes, fears and aspirations?

Here are three reasons: When we launched the annual survey, the region was known for being data-poor on this important demographic segment, although the need to focus and nurture MENA’s ‘demographic dividend’ was talked about in every global forum. Policymakers, businesses and media

had few resources for insights on Arab youth, and the evidence-based findings of our survey filled a vital information gap.

Secondly, the study needed to be independent and credible, and hence we decided to fund the study ourselves. It was our contribution, in a small but significant way, for the good of society.

Thirdly, we wanted to provide the key findings of the survey openly on our website ( freely to governments, the private sector and civil society, giving critical information on one of the world’s most compelling socio-political landscapes, to drive informed decision-making and policy formation.

But we did not stop at just doing the survey and sharing data and findings on a public domain. We wanted to ensure that we add further value by inviting a panel of international experts to write opinion columns on the findings and offer rich context and insight, especially to help those who have a cursory acquaintance of the region. This year, we have seven seasoned commentators, who present compelling viewpoints that are invaluable in understanding the region better.

Unlocking enormous wealth of data
As I look back on the enormous wealth of data that our annual survey has collected all these 12 years, I see surprising instances of how the thoughts initially shared by young people in our face-to-face field interviews have mirrored the changing landscape of the region. In fact, several of our surveys did predict future events, including the Arab Spring. The continued discontent on the street among young Arabs – especially their sense of economic, political and social marginalisation – reflects in our 12th edition as well.

This year, our survey is even more comprehensive. We have not only covered 17 Arab states - the largest to date – but in doing so, also expanded our geographic reach. We have returned to Syria after nine years – a hiatus since 2011 due to the conflict and the rise of the terrorist group Daesh in that country. In the intervening years, our survey studied views of Arab youth on Daesh, and they repeatedly asserted the need to eradicate terrorism. With Daesh nearly defeated, Syria reenters our survey.

We have for the first time added Sudan to the survey, one of the more populous nations in North Africa, as a key geography to explore. Our decision to include it was further confirmed by the massive youth-led anti-government street protests the country witnessed in 2019 leading to a change in leadership.

From protests to the pandemic
Every year, we unveil the findings of the survey, conducted during the beginning months of the year, in April. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown in most parts of the region, we decided to delay the launch until we could find a proper window when decision makers had the bandwidth to absorb the survey’s findings.

As we were looking for a new date for the launch, we realised the need to check the pulse on the street among young Arabs especially with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to hold sway, to check if the crisis has indeed altered their perceptions and to validate the findings of the Main Survey. We were reassured when our COVID -19 Pulse Survey conducted in August confirmed the findings of our Main Survey.

Green shoots of peace
The region has also witnessed green shoots of peace in recent months. Peace negotiations in Libya and Yemen have gained momentum; Syria and Iraq are limping back to normalcy and the historic Abraham Accord signed by the UAE and Bahrain with Israel opens new avenues for collaboration.

The GCC states, on the other hand, face a different set of challenges – mainly, the ballooning government deficits as a result of the steep fall in oil price. The International Monetary Fund says oil revenues in the MENA nations decreased from US$1 trillion in 2012 to US$575 billion in 2019 and will hit a low of US$300 billion this year. The Gulf Cooperation Council states alone stand to accumulate US$490 billion in government deficits by 2023. That is a phenomenal drain on government spending, which for so long has been the economic bulwark of the Gulf states. There is need for a regionwide movement towards peace and prosperity and the first step is to reform age old policies and devise a new social contract.

The youth dividend
The oldest cohort we interviewed this year, who are 24 years of age, were just 12 when we launched our survey in 2008. The youngest, the 18-year-olds, were six years of age then. And what a transformative phase they have lived through! As digital natives, they stand at the threshold of a new era. Their ‘Voice for Change,’ reflected in our findings, is also a reminder that it is time – the Arab youth dividend – pays off.

Having a young population does not automatically translate into a dividend for economic growth and prosperity. The decision makers in the region know that well enough and much has been said about the need for urgent action to tackle the growing issue of youth unemployment in the MENA at 30 per cent – the highest in the world. It is high time to implement the right mix of policies, relevant education systems to develop a well-prepared workforce and an environment that celebrates private sector success in creating jobs and thus economic growth. Nobody wants another ‘lost generation.’

Sunil John is the President – Middle East of BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe) and Founder of ASDA’A BCW, the region’s leading PR consultancy. He is on the global board of BCW a top three global PR agency. He also leads Proof Communications, a specialist design and digital marketing firm, and PSB Research ME that offers polling and research-based consultancy for campaigns in the region. Sunil has been the key driver behind the annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, a unique thought leadership initiative started in 2008 and, today, one of the most widely cited pieces of public opinion research on the region by media and policymakers around the world.