By Shane McGinley
Issues of personal debt, exercise and entrepreneurship come to light in latest Arab Youth survey.
The largest survey into the mindset of young Arabs in the Middle East has found that democracy and the rising cost of living are major issues for them. However, issues regarding personal debt, exercise and entrepreneurship also came to light.
Mohammed Basri has a lot of opinions on a lot of subjects. And the 21-year-old trainee account executive working in a major UAE bank, is eager to share them. "Nokia is history, completely history. Either you have an iPhone or no phone. BlackBerry, it's just wrong, very wrong," he tells me.
In the space of five minutes, over a coffee in Dubai's Mall of the Emirates, we skirt around endless topics: his hatred of gyms; why hotmail is still "cooler" than gmail, and why president Obama's speech in Cairo last year was "a missed, missed, missed, chance for Muslims."
"The thing is, it doesn't really matter what I say or think, because nobody is actually that interested in the voice of Arab youths anymore," Basri says.
Not for much longer. From advertisers to politicians, and corporate giants to environmentalists, it seems everyone now wants to get a slice of the Arab youth action, opinion and ultimately business.
Last week, Asda'a Burson-Marsteller rolled out its second Annual Arab Youth Survey - the biggest ever such exercise undertaken. Two thousand interviews across nine Arab countries were conducted face to face, amongst Arabs aged eighteen to 24.
From their views on the financial crisis to spending habits, and media consumption to perceptions of leading brands, the survey is already being seen by experts as the most definite and scientific exercise to date on the mood of Arab youths - their hopes, dreams and doubts.
"This is the first time any kind of data like this has ever been produced. Nothing has been done like this before - whatever the results and however you interpret them, I think the important thing here is that we actually have some real data at last to study," says Asda'a chief executive Sunil John.
So what do millions of Mohammed Basris in the Arab world really think? It's no surprise that most appear to believe that democracy is "our future" and their single most important priority.
Delving into the data, 96 percent of respondents in the UAE consider living in a democratic country to be ‘very important or ‘somewhat important' to them. The figure rises to 99 percent in Kuwait and while Omanis are the most ambivalent they still recorded a figure as high as 85 percent.
Tasked with announcing the results fell to Karen Hughes, global vice chair of Burson-Marsteller and former US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, who told Arabian Business afterwards that she was not surprised by the findings.
"I think, as president Obama said in his Cairo speech, all young people across the world want to be heard and want to play a part in their society. These are not American ambitions, they are universal human rights and universal desires," she believes.
When asked if the results show that Arab youths believe that more government officials should be democratically elected, Hughes only says that "the question was to live in a democratic country, and they said yes they would like to do that."
However, despite this first surprise result, the survey showed that the majority of young Arabs are satisfied with how their countries are being run and in the direction they are taking. The survey found that 66 percent of those questioned believe their country is moving in the right direction, with the figure rising to 81 percent in the UAE and 98 percent in Saudi Arabia.
Only Egypt and Lebanon - which ironically both already have democratically elected governments - showed low levels of satisfaction. Only 26 and 22 percent of Arab youth respectively in these countries said they were happy with how things were progressing in their country and the direction their governments were taking.Hughes believes the dissatisfaction in Egypt and Lebanon is due to the harsher economic conditions being experienced in these countries, mainly due to the fact that they do not have anything near the massive energy reserves present in the Gulf. However, she does believe that the high satisfaction rates in the Gulf countries show that Arab youth is happy with how their governments are representing them at present, even if they are not democratically elected.
"I think the fact that young people both say that they want to live in a democratic country but also say that they are by-and-large very happy with the direction of their countries means the leaders are doing a good job of involving people and listening to them.
"Many leaders in this part of the world are hearing that and are beginning to take some steps to address that. They are beginning to make people feel that they do have a voice in the process and that their opinions are being heard and I think that is what this reflects," she adds.
However, some observers believe that the contradictory results show that Arab youth are not advocating a call for full western-style democracy.
"I don't think they meant democracy per se, as in they want to go to the ballet boxes. Democracy is a byword for accountability and having a fair shot at life," Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, chairman of the UAE chapter of the Young Arab Leaders tells Arabian Business. He believes that what young people are looking for is a meritocracy, which is where government officials are appointed on talent and ability only.
America - the global advocate of democracy - received a relatively good favourability rating of 28 percent among Arab youth. US support was found to be particularly high in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, while less so in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Al Qassemi believes that if young Arabs are looking to US President Barack Obama to deliver them democracy then they will be disappointed. "It might be a call to Obama but it is a call that will probably go unheard, because I think Obama needs the Arab countries and governments so he can come out of Iraq. I don't think he will be hearing their calls," he says.
From an economic point of view, Al Qassemi believes one of the most worrying trends revealed is Arab youths' lack of motivation to enter the private sector. Across the region, 46 percent said they would prefer to work in the government sector rather than the private sector. This rises to 61 percent in the UAE and 64 percent in Bahrain.
"It is a disaster that more people want to work in the public sector," he says. "The government cannot absorb all these Emiratis. They need to encourage them to go and find work in the private sector or become entrepreneurs."
He believes it is the job security, shorter working hours and salaries in the public sector that is attracting youths to a government job. "The government needs to step back and let people find their own way and not direct them to the public sector," he says.
The lack of entrepreneurship in the UAE was also highlighted earlier this year in the latest Silatech Index, a research initiative set up in 2009 by the Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned and which surveys more than 40,000 fifteen to 29-year-olds across 21 Arab countries about their attitudes to the work and the economy.
The index found that only nineteen percent of Emiratis were planning to start up their own businesses in the next twelve months. Those surveyed also said that high levels of red tape and a lack of available finance were the biggest obstacles to setting up a business in the UAE.
This lack of available finance is a major issue at present, says Al Qassemi. He says that the majority of entrepreneurs have to resort to borrowing from family members and that the UAE government needs to do something to free up funds for young entrepreneurs if they want to tackle unemployment and to encourage them into the private sector.
Away from work and politics, a massive 66 percent of young Arabs in Asda'a Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey list watching TV as their favourite activity. Second is going to the mall and third is dining out. However, far down the list were going to public parks, exercising and going to the gym.
"I think it is a serious concern and something policymakers should look at. Whether this means building more parks or supporting more physical activity that is not up to me [to decide] but is up to the politicians, but I think it is a disturbing trend," says Robert Kellman, Middle East business director of Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates who carried out the research. The research also unearthed that over a quarter of young Arabs have some form of personal debt, mainly as a result of credit card usage.
As we move in the next decade of the new millennium it appears that those who will one day "lead the way" are most likely currently at home watching TV, worrying about the cost of living, aiming for a career in the public sector and dreaming of a democracy.
Having lived in Kuwait for 4 years and recently returned to the U.K. I completely get the comments by Robert Kellmen lack of enterprise and entrepreneurship, the younger generation preferring to stay in watching television or going to the mall. Sport is a great way to get motivated and get out there and skateboarding is one of the coolest and most thrilling sports today. If anyone is enterprising enough to build an (indoor) park, let me know, my company Dirtball would love to get involved.