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The best is yet to come

Sunil John (AT HOME) / 11 April 2013

The big opportunity of Arab youth optimism

For several decades now, the dominant portrait of the Arab world has been one of gloom and despair. The images projected across international media of the region have invariably been of civil strife and conflict.

The social and political volatility that has defined the region during the last three decades culminated in the epochal changes of the past two years, given expression by the newfound voice of the Arab youth on social media.

The Arab youth, a population of over 200 million and the largest demographic of the region, had discovered a new sense of confidence and optimism. And this heightened confidence is the top finding of our latest Arab Youth Survey, with the majority of Arab youth in each of the 15 countries surveyed saying they believe their “best days are ahead”.

Every year ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller conducts the Arab Youth Survey and shares its findings with the public because we understand how important it is to access reliable data here in the Middle East, where research into public opinion is often limited.

Our aim is to present evidence-based insights into the attitudes of Arab youth, providing public and private sector organisations with data and analysis to inform their decision-making and policy formation. That is why we upload all the data and insights on a website: www.arabyouthsurvey.com

The Middle East and North Africa is indeed much changed since the first Arab Youth Survey in late 2008. Five years ago is another era. Back then, the world was just coming to terms with the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, and few predicted the social and political awakening the Arab world has experienced over the last two years.

While it is simplistic to attribute the events of the Arab Spring to the advent of social media, it is certainly true that ubiquitous digital technology has allowed the Middle East youth to project a powerful collective voice. What we find, today, is a community proud of what they have achieved and excited by their untapped potential.

Various commentators have observed that it is suddenly “cool” to be an Arab in the wake of the uprisings. Middle East youth concur, displaying a stronger sense of national identity and a shared belief in a brighter future.

In earlier years, the findings of our survey highlighted the immediate concerns of a society in flux, through the eyes of its youth.  For instance, in 2011, the uppermost priority for young Arabs was “to live in a democratic country”. In the months that followed, the region witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of public opinion in what is now described as the Arab Spring.

But when asked in 2012, the top-most priority of youth had changed from living in a democratic country, to being paid a fair wage and owning their own home, aspirations that are reflected in this year’s findings too.

While identifying the challenges faced by the Arab youth is important, the next step – to arrive at a consensus to address them – is even more critical, and indeed, a mammoth task before governments and policy makers.

Experts who attended the launch of the Arab Youth Survey in Dubai this week pointed out that an ideal starting point would be to break down the challenges into smaller, achievable targets.

They agree on the need to further strengthen the region’s education sector with a focus on improved vocational training, and to improve collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Not many years ago, there was considerable reluctance to discuss youth attitudes openly. Today, they are debated intently, largely because they provide a window into our future.

The optimism being expressed by the Arab youth, therefore, is a big opportunity. The real task, however, is to convert it into a meaningful and measurable agenda for development.

Sunil John is the Chief Executive Officer of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, the region’s leading public relations consultancy. The findings of the Survey are available on: www.arabyouthsurvey.com

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