Why Americans should look at the Middle East through the eyes of its youth

Why Americans should look at the Middle East through the eyes of its youth
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Around the time that fallout from the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 spilled over from Wall Street to Main Street, signs of widespread discontent, especially among Arab youth, emerged in the Middle East. Coming from a region regarded as a near-permanent conflict zone, these stirrings — reported as isolated protests against inflation or for jobs — hardly appeared on the radar of a world dealing with a global economic crisis. 

Two years later, the world was forced to take notice as simmering tensions boiled over. The self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, galvanized the region’s youth, who took to the streets and set in motion a wave of dissent unlike any seen in the region for decades. 

Time magazine eventually would recognize the movement with “The Protestor” as its 2011 “Person of the Year,” noting that the “protestors didn’t just voice their complaints; they changed the world.”

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As U.S. media converged on the squares and streets of Middle Eastern cities to cover what quickly was dubbed the “Arab Spring,” the traditional narrative associated with the region — oil, wars and chaos in Palestine — was replaced by what young men or women anywhere in the world could relate to: the right to dignity, need for jobs, urge for self-respect and desire for a  better life. 

Today, we recognize in the voice of young people — be they the Parkland, Fla., high school students calling for gun control, or Greta Thunberg igniting a global campaign on climate change — the definitive call for change that cannot be ignored. And it is the same voice of young people that we have documented for 11 years through the ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey

We embarked on this initiative because we were surprised by the enormous data vacuum about the largest demographic of one of the world’s most important regions — one that fuels the world, with 60 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 45 percent of its natural gas reserves. The Middle East also is home to about 400 million people, more than 60 percent of them below age 30. That’s a youth population of 240 million people, more than half the entire U.S. population. 

Over the years, our survey has proven to be a remarkably accurate barometer of the prevailing mood of this important demographic. In 2008, when some 23 million millennial voters helped to propel Barack Obama into the White House, our first survey explored how the Arab world’s youth fared against their Western counterparts. The findings underscored what perhaps the world largely believed: that young people in the Arab world looked up to and respected their leaders and viewed religion as an integral part of who they were. But we also learned, perhaps surprisingly, that Arab youth were more optimistic about the future than their Western peers. 

A year later, in a foreshadowing of the region’s imminent socio-political turmoil, a majority of young people said their “single most important priority” was to live in a democratic country. The next year, the message was clearer: Young people had an enduring desire for democracy; there was growing anxiety about the rising cost of living, and less optimism about economic recovery. That year, in 2011, the Arab region witnessed an epochal wave of transformation, led by the very demographic our survey profiled. 

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The Arab Youth Survey, ever since, has held the mirror to “what’s next” for the region. As the Arab Spring turned to the Arab Winter, more cynical generations of young Arabs expressed concern “whether democracy could ever work in the Middle East” (2014); viewed “the rise of ISIS as the biggest obstacle facing the region” (2015); rejected ISIS and believed the group would fail to establish an Islamic state (2016); wanted their countries to do more for them (2017); and said the previous decade, shaped by the Arab Spring and ISIS, left the region drifting off course (2018). 

The 2019 survey, titled “A Call For Reform,” comes full circle from 2008. This year, Arab youth said religion plays too big a role in the Middle East and that religious institutions need to be reformed. These top findings of our survey are all bold statements that give a more insightful, intuitive understanding of the region for policymakers than endless news cycles about “the conflict-ridden Middle East.” 

Since 2010, the survey has gauged perceptions of Arab youth about the U.S. Until 2016, the U.S. had been regarded as one of the most favored allies of their nations by more than one in three young Arabs, and as the region’s top ally by almost two in three young Arabs in 2016. But that favorable perception has plummeted since President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE entered office; this year, only 41 percent of young Arabs viewed the U.S. as their ally. However, the U.S. still is seen as a top country in which to live and which Arab youth would like their own countries to emulate.

This suggests that Arab youth take two nuanced views of America — one defined by foreign policy, the other accepting the U.S. as a success story and a model nation. 

What do these findings really mean for the U.S.? And why should Americans care?

It is my view the Americans also should have a nuanced view of the Middle East. I believe the Arab Youth Survey reveals three strategic imperatives that call for knowing the Middle East through the eyes of its largest demographic: 

The economic imperative: While the U.S. has achieved greater energy self-sufficiency, the global economy will continue to depend on the Middle East’s vast oil reserves. 

The security imperative: As our survey reveals, traditional U.S. notions regarding regional terrorism are far removed from reality. Time and again, young Arabs have rejected violence, and policymaking should address this, seeing Arab youth as potential allies in the war on terror, not as enemy combatants.  

The socio-political and cultural imperative: U.S. views about the Middle East, shaped from distant perceptions, are largely irrelevant. Young Arabs — like young Americans — prioritize jobs, a good education and better living. They are conscious of climate change, love Hollywood movies alongside the local cultural output of which they are rightly proud, and aspire for a better tomorrow underpinned by opportunities for growth. 

If the U.S. were to look at the Middle East through the eyes of its youth, it could generate a stronger empathy for the region and its people. Rather than the angry mobs we see on cable news, the Arab Youth Survey gives voice to countless millions who deplore violence and have similar hopes, fears and aspirations as young Americans. 

This empathy, I believe, can be the foundation of a new approach to dialogue, one based on mutual respect and shared goals. Ultimately, greater understanding of Arab youth will promote progress and peace, rather than polemics and pessimism. 

Sunil John is the founder of ASDA’A BCW, a leading Middle Eastern and North African public relations firm based in the United Arab Emirates, which conducts the annual “Arab Youth Survey.” He is president, Middle East, of the BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe) communications agency. Follow on Twitter @ArabYouthSurvey.