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Nearly half of young Arabs have considered leaving their country

Economic woes, government corruption, education opportunities and security driving youth from the Middle East, new survey shows
Lebanese youth recorded the highest numbers stating a desire to leave at 77 percent, followed by 69 percent of Libyans, 66 percent of Yemenis and 65 percent of Iraqis (Fadel Senna/AFP)

Over 40 percent of the 200 million young people in the Middle East and North Africa have considered or are actively considering emigrating to another country, according to this year’s Arab Youth Survey.

The survey, commissioned by Dubai communications agency Asda’a Burson Cohn & Wolfe, was conducted in two phases, polling 3,400 young Arabs between January and March, and then surveying a further 600 respondents in August on how the coronavirus pandemic had affected them.

Crisis-hit Lebanon saw the highest number of respondents to state their desire to leave at  77 percent, followed by 69 percent of Libyans, 66 percent of Yemenis and 65 percent of Iraqis. 

In contrast, 97 percent of United Arab Emirates (UAE) nationals and 94 percent of Saudis stated they would not consider emigration. The UAE was also the destination of choice for more than 45 percent of Arab youth for the ninth year running, ahead of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

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In its 12th year, the survey, which polled respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 from 17 Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa, with a 50:50 gender split, found that economic reasons were the primary reason for the desire to emigrate. 

This was followed by perceived government corruption, education opportunities, new experiences and for security reasons. 

Among youth who were actively considering emigration, 60 percent said they want to leave temporarily, with nearly 50 percent from the Levant expressing their wish to leave for good. 

When asked "thinking about the impact of Covid-19, has it made you more or less likely to emigrate to another country?’’, nearly one-third of young Arabs said they are "more likely to emigrate". 

Forty-one per cent of young Algerians, one in three young Jordanians and 33 per cent of Egyptians expressed their keenness to emigrate as a result of Covid-19. In contrast, only nine percent of young Saudis said they were "more likely" to emigrate to another country because of the pandemic. 

Anti-government protests

Eight years after the events of the so-called Arab Spring, when the region’s youth protested in their thousands for reform, democracy and an end to corruption, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan saw youth-led popular movements in 2019. 

The overriding desire to have a representative government, jobs, opportunities and education remain the priorities of Arab youth.

When asked what they thought were the reasons for the social unrest and protests that the Arab world witnessed in 2019, 40 percent cited corruption and bad governance - mirroring findings of the 2012 Arab Youth Survey following the Arab Spring, which indicates the lack of progress made in the last eight years.

Eighty-two percent of youth in Lebanon, 89 percent each in Algeria and Iraq, and 88 percent in Sudan said they supported the anti-government protests, many of which have been put on hold this year since the onset of the pandemic. 

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However, they differ slightly in how they view the outcomes of anti-government protests. In Sudan, nearly 70 per cent said protests will lead to real positive change, while in Algeria, though 64 percent are hopeful of positive outcomes, nearly one-third said the protests will have little long-term impact. Forty percent of Lebanese youth shared similar scepticism, while 54 percent are hopeful of positive outcomes.

With the pandemic provoking a number of crises in the region already witnessing high employment rates and mounting frustrations with continued state negligence, youth in parts of the Arab world (86 percent in war-torn Libya, half in Tunisia and 56 percent in Yemen) expect protests to hit their streets. 

The recurring concern of a lack of quality jobs, social justice, government policies and weak public services in education and health were all factors cited as the reasons behind how social unrest could be ignited.

Leading concerns of Arab youth include defeating terrorist organisations, modernising education, diversifying economies away from oil and encouraging technological innovations.

Religion and gender rights

Religion is particularly important to personal identity among young Arabs in North Africa (61 percent) compared to the Levant (29 percent) and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (27 percent). However, many young Arabs also believe that while it is a strong component of one's identity, religion plays too big a role - a perception that has strengthened over the past five years, according to the Arab Youth Survey. 

Sixty-six percent of young Arabs strongly agreed to the statement "the Arab world needs to reform its religious institutions" - a drop from 79 percent in 2019. 

Concerning the restrictions put on Hajj due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 78 percent supported the decision; more so in the GCC, with 89 percent in support compared to 77 per cent in the Levant and 68 percent in North Africa. 

In relation to gender rights, according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index Report for 2020, the Middle East and North Africa region ranks the lowest in the world, with 61.1 percent on overall performance when it comes to closing the gap between men and women. 

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However, of those surveyed, two in three young Arab women said they have the same rights as men. The efforts of Gulf governments to empower women through wider representation in government ministries and corporate boards is reflected in the 71 percent of young Arab women in the GCC who affirmed gender parity compared with 62 percent in North Africa and 60 percent in the Levant. 

Despite the positive attitude, according to the World Economic Forum it will take 150 years to close the gender gap in the region at the current rate of progress.

While 70 percent of young Arab women in the survey said there was equality in accessing quality education, more than one-third said men have better professional opportunities than women. 

Among young Arab men, 70 percent shared the view that women working will benefit the family, with 43 percent favouring part-time work by women than full time. With the pandemic also heightening financial difficulties in households, many believe work and family responsibilities on women are increasing. 

According to the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, women in the Arab world will lose approximately 700,000 jobs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Rising influence

Many of those surveyed believe the role of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US influencing the geopolitics of the Middle East has expanded in the last five years. Non-Arab nations that young Arabs perceive as having increased their influence in the region include Turkey (20 percent), Russia (16 per cent) and Iran (14 percent).  

While 89 percent of young Arabs see the UAE as their nation’s ally, followed by Egypt (80 percent) and Saudi Arabia (78 percent), fewer perceive the US as an ally compared with 73 percent of perceptions to China, Russia (71 percent) and Turkey (61 percent). 

Sixty-four percent of young Arabs also viewed Iran as "somewhat of an enemy" or "a strong enemy of their country". The high number may be accounted for by the fact the survey was conducted soon after the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in an American strike, at a time of soaring tensions.