Are Lebanese Youth Different from Other Young Arabs?

Tuesday, December 1, 2020
Opinion By Jean AbiNader

On November 23, the Middle East Institute hosted a webinar on the results of the 12th Annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey. While I don’t intend to recap all of the report, you can find it here to dive into the overall results. The survey explores attitudes among youth in 17 states in the Middle East and North Africa. It was conducted in two parts: the first segment before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the second following the crisis. Overall, 4,000 young Arabs aged 18 to 24 were interviewed: 3,400 face-to-face in the main survey and 600 both face-to-face and by phone in the second phase.

Interviews were conducted in Arabic and English with a sample split of 50:50 female to male and only with young nationals of the country. While there are many dimensions to the study, the two most relevant for this blog are responses among Lebanese, and when available, in comparison to their peers. Some of the study data is presented in the aggregate so it’s not possible to always separate out the Lebanese responses. The focus here is to build a profile of young Lebanese, their aspirations and attitudes toward daily life, and their future.

The study identified three regions for comparison: North Africa, the Levant, and the Gulf. In the Levant, 98% said that corruption was increasing in their countries, compared to 95% in North Africa. Overall, 49% noted that there was widespread corruption in their countries. When asked about how their government was handling COVID-19, 68% in Lebanon said they disapprove of how it is being handled and 76% of all respondents said there was still massive corruption after the pandemic started.

Lebanese youth are very troubled by their future prospects, as are their peers in the Levant. Some 57% in the region are struggling financially. In Lebanon, 91%, the highest by far, are finding it difficult to find a job. Not surprisingly, 77% of all Lebanese said that they were trying to or considering emigration, by far the highest number, followed by Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, all countries in crisis. Most across the board said that economic reasons and corruption were the main factors driving their desire to emigrate. Lebanon (77%) said that the pandemic made it much harder for them, which was 36 points higher than the next country, Algeria, and 45 points higher than the average overall score.

Among Lebanese respondents, 82% said they supported the demonstrations compared to 89% in Iraq and Algeria, and 88% in Sudan. Again in Lebanon, 40% said that there would be little long-term impact of the demonstrations while 54% remain hopeful. Corruption and bad governance were seen as the key culprits by 40% of the Lebanese, which was the average overall. More protests were expected by 73% of the Lebanese after the pandemic is brought under control expressing concerns with the economy (70%), jobs (65%), and government policy (60%).

As Afshin Molavi commented in his observations of the report, “Lebanon’s political elite have failed on just about every measure imaginable to deliver the conditions optimal for growth, opportunity, and dignity, while enriching themselves, fighting petty squabbles, and reinforcing sectarian divisions.”

In a section highlighting attitudes towards religion, responses were aggregated except for a query about how important religion is to one’s identity. In Lebanon, 30% of youth ranked religion as a key component of their identity, compared to 40% overall. As a group, 67% of Arab youth said religion played too big a role in government, and 79% agreed that there needs to be reform of religious institutions.

Finally, in a much-anticipated ranking of perceptions of friends and allies, the US fared fairly well with some 33% wanting to live in the US, which reclaimed its #2 spot behind the UAE. This was the same ranking when asked which country they want their home country to emulate. In Lebanon, 62% said that they are less proud of their country than a year ago, with the second place going to Algeria at 17%. Interestingly, 46% said the US was the #1 rising non-Arab power in the region, but throughout the region, 43% perceived the US as an enemy of their countries, while 56% rated it an ally, the best showing since 2016 (+15%).

The incoming Biden Administration should review this study as an important dataset for identifying priorities for its policies vis-à-vis the region, where more than 50% of the population is under 24. Sections not reviewed here, on gender and media, are also helpful in understanding options for messaging and points to emphasize in reaching out to Arab youth. While avoiding errors of reductionism and stereotyping aggregates such as “Arab women,” “Muslims,” “Gulf young men,” it is still possible to develop sound and effective messaging that reflects American values and illustrates the shared interests we have with Arab youth in promoting opportunity, education, transparency, rule of law, inclusiveness, and justice.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.