Sunil John is the founder and chief executive of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller. 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 into 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 ME. 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.
The key theme running through the ninth edition of the annual ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017 is a sobering one: we live in a region where young people straddle a fault line between hope and despair. A vast, important demographic that is united by religion, language and culture is increasingly separated by access to opportunity.
Even today, given the conflicts, security issues and unemployment which sadly mark much of the region, our overall finding looks surprisingly positive: just over half of young Arabs as a whole still believe their nation is on the right track. Looking at the Survey on a region-by-region, or country-by-country level, however, we see a stark divide between youth in the Gulf states, who are brimming with optimism, and those in the Levant – Lebanon, Jordan, Palestinian Territories, Iraq – and Yemen, who are anxious and disillusioned about the future. The real tragedy of this year’s key findings is that young Arabs are becoming more pessimistic, despite the very nature of youth anywhere in the world to be boisterously upbeat about the future. “Our best days are behind us” is not a phrase any government should hear from anyone, least of all the very demographic that will be living with the legacy of their rule.
It would be easy to dismiss this divide as the result of the widening income gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ – those that have oil, and the prosperity that should come with it and those that don’t. But that’s too simplistic – Iraq and Libya, for example, are oil-rich states, but are among those countries in which youth are most concerned about unemployment, and least confident in their government’s ability to address that issue. The Gulf states, too, have seen oil revenues plunge by half since 2013 – from $735 billion to $365 billion in 2016 – but we have not seen a corresponding drop in optimism in that region.
This isn’t a crisis of economics, it’s a crisis of leadership. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our Survey finds that almost all young Arabs believe their governments should do more for them, but it is only in the GCC where they believe their governments are actually doing something about the issues. That suggests Gulf states are getting something right, and it’s not necessarily linked only to wealth.
What’s clear from the findings is, even if many young people do lack confidence in their government’s ability to help them, they’re under no illusion that it is anyone else’s responsibility. Young Arabs realise that while their elders played the victim game and sought intervention and protection from foreign allies, that strategy no longer cuts ice. The world is becoming increasingly inward-looking and globalisation is being challenged: Britain is leaving the EU; Trump has pulled out of major global trade deals; a global shift rightwards promises more protectionism and less intervention. The Middle East, for better or worse, is going to have to address its serious shortcomings itself. Young people throughout the Middle East can’t change their neighbours. But can they work with those neighbours to improve their lot?
The answer, I believe, is yes. According to this year’s Survey, young Arabs do not see the US, Russia or other international powers as their biggest allies, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And they increasingly see the UAE as a model country – one that they would not only choose to live in over any other, but also want their own countries to emulate.
This suggests a solution: that good governance could be the UAE’s newest export. The soft power of the UAE is one of the Middle East’s greatest assets – and one that doesn’t just enrich the UAE but the whole region, through the promotion of stability and prosperity. National and international complexities mean that a one-size-fits-all model would be unrealistic. But some aspects of the UAE model are universal: empowering youth, and focusing on enabling positivity, happiness and tolerance – increasingly in short supply across the region – would be a strong start.
The Arab Spring of 2011 is behind us, and last year’s Survey showed us youth were increasingly disillusioned with its legacy. But revolutions can take a long time for their full effects to become apparent. For better and for worse, the region is very different today than it was six years ago. It’s easy to concentrate on the ‘worse’ – the conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Libya, the refugee crisis and continued instability in Iraq, to name just a few. For better, though, we see that nations are waking up to the new reality and finally preparing their economies for the future. In Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar we see younger generations taking more prominent roles in government; in Egypt we are seeing the return of a measure of economic and political stability; in Iraq and Syria we see Daesh in retreat; in North Africa, outside of Libya, we see relative stability; and across the region we see young people increasingly rejecting the message of extremism.
Twelve years ago, long before the Arab Spring provided a wake-up call to autocratic regimes, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, sent a clear message to Arab governments: “You must change, or you will be changed.”
So what is the solution? The 28th Arab League Summit, held in Jordan in March this year, pontificated for the nth time on the same issues, and came out with no solution. While it may sound utopian, the only real solution that has the chance to offer a candle in the sea of darkness is one led by the spirit of youth and the courage to be positive.
The 22 Arab nations spread across two continents, Asia and Africa, must pull together in a historic movement to declare a shared manifesto that focuses on a unified destiny. The solution for the region’s problems, as the Arab Youth Survey sees it, must come from within this region, and not from the US, Russia, Europe or even the United Nations.
THE EXPERT COMMENTARY
Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017.
Watch our panel of experts discuss the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017. The wide-ranging conversation takes on hot-button issues facing youth today, including lack for job opportunities and the threats posed by extremism.