Young citizens of the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) live lives that are worlds apart from those of their cohorts in other Arab countries, the recently released 2020 Arab Youth Survey shows.
Those in the GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) have less debt, are more likely to be entrepreneurs and are less likely to consider moving outside the area than young people elsewhere in the Arab world.
With those up to the age of 29 comprising nearly 66% of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s population, this demographic will have tremendous sway over the area’s future.
ASDA’A BCW, a Dubai-based PR agency, is responsible for the annual survey, which has been carried out since 2008. The research is conducted by PSB Insights, an international consultancy.
It is the broadest independent investigation of the Middle East’s largest demographic: its young people.
Evenly split along gender lines, 4,000 citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 in 16 countries plus the Palestinian territories were asked a diverse set of questions, initially between mid-January and early March of this year. A second stage of questioning was conducted after the coronavirus pandemic broke out, with the results appended to the end of each topic section.
The margin of error is +/- 1.7% for the total sample.
One topic covered is the desire to move elsewhere.
Forty-two percent of Arab youth in the region expressed a desire to emigrate, including 15% actively taking steps to do so. This was most prevalent among those in Lebanon, at nearly 80%, with other countries in the Levant following. Nearly half of those in North Africa expressed a desire to depart.
Roudy Hanna, a 23-year-old living in Beirut, is one of the many young people in Lebanon who want out.
“I have considered moving, and so have my friends. We are slowly throwing away our future living here,” he told The Media Line.
“We work all month for barely $150. We can’t access our savings [due to the currency liquidity crisis in the country]. We can’t invest. We can’t do anything, really,” Hanna noted.
Sunil John is president for the Middle East at BCW and the founder of ASDA’A BCW, which merged in 2018. He says the fact that so many in the region want to leave should be a wake-up call for leaders.
“The survey’s finding that nearly half of the 200 million young Arabs in MENA have considered leaving their country, frustrated with struggling economies and widespread government corruption, should come as a revelation for governments and policy-makers,” he told The Media Line.
“It underlines the need for addressing issues that matter the most, such as eradicating corruption, ensuring job creation and addressing economic challenges – or risk a talent erosion,” he added.
In the GCC countries, meanwhile, only 13% of the young people want to leave. The figure is just 3% in the UAE.
For the rest of the Arab world, the Emirates is the place to be, taking the No. 1 spot as the most desired country to reside in for the ninth consecutive survey.
“The UAE represents a kind of universal myth for young Arabs. They see an Arab state which appears to have bridged the divide between modernity and a familiar Arab and Muslim identity,” John said.
“They see most of the attributes of Europe and the West which they find appealing, like glamorous cities, well-paid jobs, leisure facilities,” he explained. “At the same time, the UAE projects an image that it remains committed to traditional values.”
Emma Murphy is a professor of political economy at Durham University in the UK, and policy work package leader for POWER2YOUTH, a large international collaborative research project supported by the European Commission that is studying sources of youth exclusion and pathways to inclusion in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.
“Women [in the UAE] can work in glamorous professional roles, but they dress modestly. Men can wear their traditional [garb], but they can still be an engineer or a property developer,” she told The Media Line.
“Maybe most importantly – albeit subconsciously – Emiratis are on top,” Murphy said. “They are at the top of the hierarchies, and foreigners work for them in subordinate roles. It is a reversal of the colonial model, a sign of global success.”
The UAE even outranks the United States and Canada in terms of desirability of residence.
Adam Ramey, a professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi, says that location and ease of entry are just two of the reasons that the UAE is the top choice among young Arabs.
“They have extended families across the region, and being able to be in close proximity while also having a more stable environment for their personal lives is desirable,” he told The Media Line.
“Getting visas to the United States and Canada is a harrowing process and they’re well aware of that,” he continued. “Obtaining a visa to come work in the UAE is considerably easier for them to do.”
Another topic the survey explores is individual indebtedness among young adults, which grew from 15% in 2015 to 35% in 2020. Again, the debt is not evenly spread geographically: The Levant has the most people owing money, in the 70% range for Syria and Jordan.
Arab youth in the GCC have the lowest levels of individual indebtedness. In 2020, the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia came in at a little under 15%, with Kuwait taking the top spot at just under 5%.
When it comes to starting a business in the next five years, the younger generation in the GCC has the most desire to do so, at 55%. The region’s average is 40%, with North Africa coming in at just under 45% and the Levant at a little over 20%.
According to Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, this reflects the various states’ policies.
“GCC governments have aggressively promoted entrepreneurship initiatives over the past several years, especially as a policy response to successive economic crises and shocks,” he told The Media Line.
“Generous state support for local entrepreneurs mitigates certain risks associated with starting a business,” he said. “However, changing social perceptions of entrepreneurs have also made it easier for locals to seriously consider this career path.”
Among Gulf states, however, the job markets are quite different, something exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, two-thirds of young Saudis say getting a new job is more difficult now than before the outbreak, as opposed to a little over 40% in the UAE.
Mogielnicki says this is due to population size.
“The demographics are very different in the UAE and Saudi [Arabia],” he noted.
“The relatively small number of Emiratis in the labor market is more easily absorbed by the country’s public and private sectors,” he continued. “Saudi Arabia faces far greater employment pressures owing to a much larger population of working-age Saudis and a need to employ many of them in the country’s private sector.”
Although the region is divided on many issues, there are similarities among the young people.
Thirty-six percent say that stopping corruption is currently the most pressing need, followed by decent employment. However, most in the GCC do not think corruption is an issue where they live.
Murphy says the two issues are related.
“The lack of jobs is attributed to corruption, to the overall self-interest of political elites, and the subsequent complete failure of everything ‘systemic,’” she stated.
“Young people bump up against corruption every day: traffic police wanting a handful of cash just to let you drive a car, bureaucrats wanting extra money to give you a form, the guy running your job interview giving the job to the unqualified son of his boss. It is absolutely everywhere and in your face all the time,” she noted.
“This year’s findings in fact demonstrate a strong link between government corruption, lack of job opportunities, the street-wide protests supported [by 90% of] youth in countries such as Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, and emigration,” he related.
“It shows that young people want to live in and have their countries emulate ‘model nations’ such as the UAE, which recently signed the peace accord with Israel,” he said.
Ramey is not surprised that stopping corruption is the top issue for young Arabs.
“I think that for countless people in Western countries, having a relatively stable government and predictable, fairly corruption-free bureaucracy is something that we take for granted, and in the Arab world that is just simply not the case,” he said.
“For a lot of Arab youth,” he notes, “that primary concern of being able to be in a stable environment is the No. 1 thing they care about.”