What Arab youths think

Polls can be useful if treated with cautionary notes

Chris Doyle

Published: Updated:

Any survey carried out in the Arab world must have a whole bevvy of caveats, not least of all groupthink polls such as “What Arabs” or “What Muslims think?

It is not exactly as if this huge industry has mastered the polling art in stable democratic states. In the most extreme case where the regime brooks no dissent, some polls tried to determine what Syrians think, albeit all those polled were hardly free to express their viewpoint to opine on the merits of Bashar al-Assad or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Huge swathes of territory and population centres are also out of reach. Who pays for the polling may also skew the findings.

That said, polls can be useful if treated with these cautionary notes. The 8th Arab youth survey comes into this category.

There are as many as 200 million youth in the Arab world, 75 million are jobless. Graduate joblessness in Tunisia has risen to 70 percent. Where will they get their jobs in the future? How will the mammoth youth bulge be handled, notably in Egypt where between 1980 and 2010 the population doubled?

Yet as the survey highlights, there are huge differences from one region of the Middle East to another. Outside the region complacency kicks in and this is forgotten. A survey of Arab youth confirms (or for some reveals) just how differently young Arabs do think, a statement of the obvious that for some reads like Sanskrit.

But it is an important demographic about which we know so little. In the West we have always been ignorant about the youth in the Arab world and dare I say, all too often in the Arab world, the nature of society meant that Arab youth were also ignored.

The survey shows there is little support for ISIS, hardly a shock except for Fox News fans, and what support there is, is declining

Chris Doyle

Now the youth have been in the vanguard of change, revolutionary and extremist, the dynamo in protests and uprisings that saw off four dictators in 2011 but also the foot-soldiers of ISIS and al-Qaeda. The region has changed, is changing and will transform.

What happens when these millennials come to power? One, two or three decades?

The survey shows there is little support for ISIS, hardly a shock except for Fox News fans, and what support there is, is declining. Sadly, ISIS and al-Qaeda do not need millions to support them, just thousands.


It may surprise some that the new Arab millennials are perhaps not as religious as their parents. There have been similar findings in Iran too. People are still religious but perhaps less observant of rituals. Favourable views of ISIS are equally prevalent among respondents who are “very religious” and those who are “not religious.”

An apparent tension in the findings looms between desire for stability and support for democracy. But is this an ‘either or’ issue? Those surveyed valued stability more than democracy yet at the same time, want more jobs and opportunities; are fearful over sectarian tensions; and want their leaders to do more to improve personal freedom and human rights of citizens particularly women with 67 percent of Arab youth supporting women’s rights rising to 90 percent in Saudi Arabia. I suspect that in 10 years’ time the advances made by women will one of the stand out features of the region.

Change and transformation is a deep desire in much of the region’s youth. We see protests again in Egypt, in Syria during the cessation of hostilities but naturally none of them wants a Syria, Iraq, Yemeni civil war. It is not then an issue of democracy versus stability but how can they have both. It is not a vote for strong men again or for time travel back to 2010.

With the revolutions, it was not an issue of not having leaders, but frequently too many. We see a change from the vertical to horizontal – with less social hierarchies. By protesting, many challenged not just the state but their families. Instead of marrying who they are told even from within families increasingly the young marry who they love.

New generations of digerati are more connected, aware of the outside world, do not just consume media and information, but share it, debate it and produce it. Youth argue back. Newspapers are in serious decline. So if to communicate with Arab youth, it has to be online and on TV but not the traditional press. Arab youth continue to be more prone to take action and increasingly daring and innovative fashion.

There is just so much else we need to know, not least for understandable reasons – Syrians not polled in this survey due to the conflict. It is scary to think how this conflict will affect young Syrians and the impact of extended long term trauma.

Given all the horrors across the Middle East in the last few years, how many young Arabs want to remain? Will the brain drain continue and if so, what will reverse it? In a 2014 survey, over 25 percent of Egyptian males said they wanted to emigrate.

Far more must be done to engage with Arab youth, to partner with them, to support civil society and to open opportunities for them. Above all, outside powers must not abandon them to go back to the old convenient elite relationships which neither produce stability, freedom and rights, nor economic opportunity.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.

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