The state of Arab youth

Eman Ragab
Tuesday 2 May 2023

A new report looks at the attitudes of young people across the Arab world covering such issues as identity, present problems, and future hopes and aspirations, writes Eman Ragab


People under the age of 29 account for a third of the population of the Arab region. The majority of these are members of Generation Z, in other words those born between 1997 and 2012 and now aged between 11 and 26.

The UN Children’s Fund UNICEF expects that by 2040, the region will reach the “demographic dividend” – the point at which there are more people in the workforce compared to the number of dependents and therefore greater prospects for productivity and sustainable development. 

In the light of such opportunities and the consequent need to develop public policies on youth in the Arab region, the Arab League, in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Youth and Sports, has declared 2023 the Year of Arab Youth and begun to launch an array of programmes and initiatives addressing the interests and concerns of young people in the Arab world today. 

Any serious discussion of this subject needs to look beyond the paradigms that shaped the outlooks of older generations. A fresh and more realistic approach is needed, one that takes as its starting point the members of the Arab Generation Z themselves. Surveys and opinion polls are essential instruments towards this end, and one such poll was recently published by the Vice Media Group, which specialises in digital media and cultural industries. 

The group’s “State of Arab Youth Report” is based on an online survey of 2,134 young people from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE and covers a range of questions related to their perceptions of identity, present-day realities, and their future. 

According to the survey, young people in the Arab region are more open to the world and other societies than older generations. As a result, traditional markers of identity, such as age, nationality and gender, play less of a role in how they define their identity than family (49 per cent), personality traits (52 per cent), education (47 per cent) and friends (37 per cent). 

They tend to be generally optimistic about the future, even if their optimism is tempered by some reservations. In response to a question about how they felt about their lives today, 48 per cent of the respondents were optimistic, while 52 per cent harboured concerns. Perhaps their optimism was informed to some extent by a certain confidence in their ability to change their societies and their lives for the better. 

According to the findings of the survey, two out of three of the respondents believe that positive change in their society will be achieved by young people themselves. At the same time, they believe that the government (44 per cent), the media (34 per cent) and religious institutions (23 per cent) still have a powerful influence in terms of shaping the nature, scope, and degree of change. These ratios are considerably higher than global averages among their peers.

Since Arab youth are more in tune with technology than members of the older generations, technology plays a much more important part in their lives. The study found that those polled felt that their identity and culture were constantly changing thanks to the new communications technologies and that these technologies had opened up avenues for personal growth, inspiration, and connectivity with others. 

Interestingly, 54 per cent of the respondents said that their styles of dress and appearance had been influenced by what they had seen on social media. Again, this signifies that traditional influencers are on the decline due to the spread of social media. However, this does not mean that young people do not seek inspiration from local customs and traditions in terms of how they express themselves. The study observes that “young people in the Middle East are using new freedoms to pick and choose how they play with fashion, often embracing traditional pieces with a new sense of ownership of their cultural signifiers.” 

The widespread use of smartphones and social media platforms have become increasingly integrated into young people’s lives and have enabled them to develop online relationships with others beyond their customary physical spheres of acquaintances. The online world has paved the way for a new culture of solidarity and mutual support among peers. 

The Vice Media Group survey found that two out of three young people feel connected to people their own age online, and that this offers them both sources of inspiration and outlets for creativity, innovation and personal expression.

Increasing numbers of young people (69 per cent, according to the survey) are looking to tech to help improve their lives. Some 53 per cent of the respondents use tech, such as telehealth and meditation apps, to manage their health. One out of every two gamers in the sample use competitive gaming (eSport) platforms as participants or observers. 

The study offers interesting insights into the growing popularity of online gaming in the region. In addition to its recreation and entertainment value, one in three gamers see it as an outlet to express themselves and their identity in a way that is not available offline. 

The many ways in which the new technologies have become incorporated into young people’s lives have had a major impact on how many businesses work, from marketing to the fashion industry, and from medical to financial services. It has also begun to influence government policies and the ways in which governments are communicating with young people and trying to shape their outlooks and preferences. 

The section of the study on “ambition” seems particularly relevant in this regard. It found that financial independence has become an important goal for the younger generation, and many believe it will help them improve their lives. One in three of those polled dream of starting their own businesses in order to achieve financial independence and realise their goals. One out of three believe that investing in crypto-currencies is a better alternative to investing in stocks or holding money in banks or other conventional instruments. 

The “State of Arab Youth Report” shows that Generation Z are different from the millennials that preceded them and that governments need to adapt policies or formulate new ones that are more in tune with how this new generation views the world and their place in it. 

Theirs is an outlook increasingly shaped by the interaction with peers in various online communications and activities. And these have created scope for young people to define themselves and their futures outside of traditional institutions that no longer enjoy as much confidence among young people as they once did. 

* The writer is head of the Security Research Department at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Cairo University.

A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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