Religion and tradition emerge as popular anchors for Arab youth

James M. Dorsey

Award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore

Transitions are seldom linear. They are full of contradictions and often adhere to the Leninist principle of two steps forward and one backward.
This year’s 15th annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey highlights contradictions as Arab countries diversify economies, renegotiate social contracts, and redefine identities as well as social, cultural, and religious norms at a seemingly dizzying pace.

Surveys, like this one, offer fleeting impressions of those shifts, provide momentary insights rather than definitive answers, raise tantalising questions, and offer food for thought for future polling.

A majority of those polled stressed the importance of religion and tradition in their personal and public lives but believe religion plays too big a role in regional affairs. The survey leaves open what aspects of regional affairs youth were referring to and how they relate to religion in their personal lives.
Similarly, youth prioritise preserving religion and tradition more than creating a tolerant, liberal, and globalised society. Yet, more than 80% surveyed stressed the need for respect for freedoms, equality, and human rights.

The contradictions speak to uncertainty sparked by rapid social and economic change. They also highlight youth seeking refuge in national rather than transnational ideologies and clamouring for a raft to hold on to in uncertain and choppy waters. Religion and tradition emerge from the survey as popular anchors by a significant margin as religiosity among youth increases.

As a result, two-thirds of those surveyed favour laws based on Sharia, 70% disagree with the suggestion that religious values hinder development, and 76%, a slightly higher number than in recent years, worry about losing traditional and religious values.

Concern about traditional and religious values suggests complex youth attitudes towards aspects of reform. The complexity is reflected in an almost 20% drop of support for reform of religious institutions in the Arab world, from 79% in 2019 to 58% this year.

Youth emphasis on tradition and religion suggests that deepening national as opposed to religious and tribal identity remains a work in progress in the Arab world. Among those surveyed, 54% said religion, family, or tribe were key components of their identity, compared to only 23% who cited nationality or Arab heritage.

Similarly, just over half attribute less significance to Arabic than their parents. The reduced weighting of the language implicitly suggests an inclination towards a more globalised society. Yet, squaring the circles is difficult with youth saying they are less focused on globalisation.

How the contradictions play out may be most evident in the potential fallout of stark discrepancies in how youth in different subsets of the Arab world look to the future.

A 20% differential in optimism among youth in the Gulf and the rest of the Levant and North Africa tells the story. In the GCC, 85% of youth, compared to just above 60 per cent in the rest of the Arab world, believe their best days lie ahead. By the same token, 75% in the GCC but only some 60% elsewhere envision having a better life than their parents.

The stark reality behind these figures is defined by degrees of confidence in government policies. Over the last five years, trust that government policies will enable youth to fulfill their dreams has been consistently high in the GCC and low in the rest of the Arab world, much of which has witnessed social unrest over the past decade.

In this year’s survey, a whopping 62 to 72% of youth in much of the Arab world said their country’s economy was heading in the wrong direction. Only 12% in the GCC agreed. In other words, 88% appeared to have a more favorable impression of economic developments.

Aspirations to migrate tell a similar story with 53% of youth in the Levant and 48% in North Africa expressing a desire to migrate compared to only 27% in the GCC.

The search for a job is the top reason for migration. Yet rather than searching in the Gulf, given its economic dynamism and cultural affinity, job seekers look primarily at Canada, the United States, Britain, Germany and France. Even so, the UAE tops the list of countries Arab youth would like to live in and see their homeland emulate.

What Arab youth have in common, irrespective of their perspective and geography, is a desire for proof of concept. The difference between the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world is that GCC youth are more confident than their Levantine and North African counterparts that their governments will deliver jobs and opportunities.

At the same time, GCC states, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are seemingly aware of the risks inherent in skewed regional development. Increasingly, they tie financial aid and economic assistance to recipients’ economic reform policies.

However, ensuring that the benefits of rapid change, investments, and assistance trickle down may be vital in striking a balance between tradition, religion, tolerance, human rights, freedom, and globalisation. Finding the proper equilibrium could also boost the development of dominant national identities but leave space for religious, tribal, and cultural sub-identities.

If this year’s survey tells us anything, it is that Arab youth seek certainty in a sea of uncertainty. Job creation and enhanced opportunity would help provide confidence, which would ease the fusing of religion and tradition with requirements of economic development.