Around this time each year, a major survey measuring attitudes among Arab youth is published. This year, it involved face-to-face interviews with 3,300 young people, ages 18-24, in 15 countries. Conducted in January, the interviews were held in both English and Arabic, with an equal number of men and women. Due to the rigor of the process, the margin of error is ±1.65%, a very strong measure of accuracy.
In Lebanon, 200 young people were interviewed, 60% from Beirut and 20% each from Saida and Tripoli. A novel feature of the survey are commentaries prepared by experts on the region on each section. They lend their analyses to help put each section in context and help frame the interpretations of the data. For example, Dr. Jihad Azour, Director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia Department and former Finance Minister in Lebanon, provided his expertise in the introduction. He said “The survey shows that young Arabs, rightly, in my view, want capable governments that are accountable, efficient, and provide opportunities for prosperity. A new social contract that sees the state create an environment for youth to thrive and unleashes their ingenuity to drive prosperity for decades to come.”
He points out that making ends meet is the top priority mentioned by respondents, and with 2.8 million young people joining the workforce in the MENA region annually over the next 10 years, “The urgency of this challenge will only grow.” Azour goes on to write that “[Governments] have a vital role to play in building an enabling environment for dynamic private sectors, raising living standards and creating opportunities,” since governments can no longer assume the primary role for job creation. In fact, 96% of businesses in the 15 countries are SMEs, yet they can only access 7% of bank credit, a major impediment to economic growth and diversification.
This calls for “A new social contract between MENA governments and citizens that ensures accountability, transparency, and a commitment to the principle that no one is left behind,” sentiments that echo the findings of last year’s World Bank 2018 study, Expectations and Aspirations: A New Framework for Education in the Middle East and North Africa.
What follows is an extraction of the results for the Levant compared to the GCC and North Africa whenever that data was available, and highlights of the responses of young Lebanese, illustrative where they are similar and different from their peers.
1. The Role of Religion
Some 66% of young Arabs say that religion plays too big a role in the region and 79% say the role of religion needs to be reformed. Almost 50% of respondents say that religion is holding back the Arab world, with 61% of the Levant in agreement. Interestingly, 54% think that religion is losing influence in the region.
2. The Role of Government
Overall, 65% think that governments are not doing enough to help young families, which goes up to 83% in the Levant. In terms of the responsibilities of government, 96% (95% in the Levant) noted safety and security, 89% (87% Levant) education, 88% (same in the Levant) healthcare, and 78% (vs. 71%) mentioned jobs. In terms of their concerns, 56% of the young people mentioned the rising cost of living, 45% unemployment, and 35% lack of Arab unity. So the expectations of government support are quite high throughout the region, which reinforces the call for a new social contract that defines responsibilities and roles on both sides.
More than three-fourths (78%) of young Arabs are unhappy with the quality of education in their countries, which rises to 84% in the Levant. Overall, 49% in region and 73% in the Levant are satisfied that their educational system prepares them for the job market, which falls to 20% in the GCC. Concerning education in the West, some 53% would prefer to make that their choice, with the Levant coming in at 64% who want to study in the West.
4 Foreign Relations
Some 37% mentioned that Saudi Arabia’s influence was increasing in the region, with the US’ growing role was noted by 48%, following by Turkey (23%), Russia (13%), and Iran (13%). The US is seen by 59% as an enemy of their country, while Russia is now perceived as an ally by 64% of those surveyed. In the Levant, 45% believe that Russia is the stronger ally compared to the US, which came in at 29%. The US did not receive a positive rating of more than 45% (GCC) in any region. In fact, 59% rated US as an enemy compared to 67% for Iran. Russia came in at 64% ally and 36% enemy.
A large majority, some 79%, still see Palestine as the most critical conflict in the region, and 59% believe that relations between Sunni and Shia have become worse over the past ten years.
6. Model Nations
For the eighth straight year, the UAE was ranked as the top Arab country (44%) in which they would like to live and the one young people wished their country would emulate (42%). Work opportunities (38%), and safety and security (36%) were the top reasons for choosing the UAE. Canada was chosen by 22% and the US by 21%. In terms of a model, the US and Japan tied at 20%.
7. Drug Use
Sadly, 70% of young people in the Levant said that drugs are easy to obtain, compared to 57% in the rest of the sample. Concurrently, 76% in the Levant said that drug use is on the rise compared to 57% in the other groups. The three top reasons for increased drug use were peer influence (62%), stress (45%), and boredom (43%). Young people mentioned stricter laws (63%), stronger law enforcement (58%), and more education and awareness (54%) as the primary means for reducing drug use.
8. Mental Health
This was another area of divergence between the Levant and the others, as 81% in the Levant said that it was difficult to get mental health services, while this came in at 54% among the GCC and North Africa. The major reasons for mental health issues were lack of national security and safety (28%) and financial issues (23%).
Shopping is alive and well across the regions with a continuing rise in use of credit cards, purchases of consumer items, and familiarity with e-commerce options. However, there is still a great deal of potential for growth as the sector is underdeveloped in terms of sites for e-commerce activity in the region.
10. Media Consumption
Social media was mentioned at the main source of news (80%) with 60% giving it a high trust rating. Some 66% look to TV for news with a 55% trust rating, with 61% turning to online news sources. WhatsApp came in at the top at 89% followed by Facebook at 88% and YouTube at 77%. In the Levant, 37% rated Facebook most important while 24% made WhatsApp their top choice.
The commentaries are quite helpful for tying together the various findings of the study, especially as there are now 11 years of comparative data to analyze. It remains to be seen if the study will encourage Arab governments to reassess priorities and programs to more effectively impact the futures of young people.