Young Arabs want less religion in the Middle East

Annual survey of Arab youth finds that some two-thirds feel religion plays too large a role, 79 percent believe religious institutions need to be reformed, and half believe religious values are holding the Arab world back.

The Arab Youth Survey logo. Credit: asdaa bcw.
The Arab Youth Survey logo. Credit: asdaa bcw.
James Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident senior associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.

Results of a recent annual survey of Arab youth suggest that Arab autocracies have yet to deliver expected public services and goods or explain autocratic efforts to promote nationalism. The survey indicates that jobs and social freedoms are more important to young Arabs than political rights.

Western governments have so far uncritically supported social and economic reform efforts, rather than more forcefully seeking to ensure that they bear fruit, and have been lax in pressuring regimes to curb excesses of political repression.

Critics charge that the survey, which was conducted by a Dubai-based public-relations firm and focused on the 18-24 age group, was flawed because it gave a greater weighting to views in smaller Gulf states as opposed to the region’s more populous countries, such as Egypt. The survey used small samples of up to 300 people and did not include Qatar, Syria or Sudan.

The results are a mixed bag for Arab autocrats. They suggest that squaring the circle between the requirements of reform and youth expectations could prove to be regimes’ Achilles’ heel.

A majority of youth, weaned on decades of reliance on government for jobs and social services, say governments that are unilaterally rewriting social contracts and rolling back aspects of the cradle-to-grave welfare state have so far failed to deliver.

Even more problematic, young Arabs expect governments to provide for them at a time when reform requires streamlining of bureaucracies, reduced state control and stimulation of the private sector.

A whopping 78 percent of those surveyed said it was the government’s responsibility to provide jobs. An equal number expected energy to be subsidized, 65 percent complained that governments were not doing enough to support young families, and 60 percent expected government to supply housing.

By the same token, 78 percent expressed concern about the quality of education on offer, including 70 percent of those in the Persian Gulf. Yet 80 percent of those in the Gulf said local education systems prepared them for jobs of the future, as opposed to a regional total of 49 percent who felt education was lagging. Nonetheless, only 38 percent of those surveyed in the Gulf said they would opt for local higher education.

There appeared to be a similar gap between youth aspirations and the foreign and regional policies of governments.

Assertive policies, particularly by Gulf states, that have fueled regional conflicts, including wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the two-year-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, run counter to a desire among a majority of those surveyed to see an end to the disputes. Like their Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini rulers, 67 percent of young Arabs see Iran as an enemy.

The survey also suggests that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contrary to common wisdom, is an issue that resonates. With 79 percent of those surveyed saying they are concerned about the dispute, the question arises of whether the Gulf’s rapprochement with Israel and support for U.S. President Donald Trump’s upcoming peace plan enjoys popular support.

The suggestion that Gulf policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be wholeheartedly supported is bolstered by the fact that the number of people surveyed this year who view the United States as an enemy rose to 59 percent compared to 32 percent five years ago.

Similarly, Arab leaders’ reliance on religion as a regime legitimizer and efforts to steer Islam in the direction of apolitical quietism are proving to be a double-edged sword and one probable reason why men like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have sought to reduce the role of the religious establishment by promoting hyper-nationalism.

Some two-thirds of those surveyed felt that religion played too large a role, up from 50 percent four years ago. Seventy-nine percent believed religious institutions need to be reformed, while half said that religious values are holding the Arab world back.

Publication of the survey coincided with the release by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) of its 2019 report. The report designated Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s “worst violators” of religious freedoms, highlighting its discrimination against Shi’ite Muslims and Christians.

“Shi[ite] Muslims in Saudi Arabia continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary, and lack access to senior positions in the government and military,” the 234-page report said.

Leaders of the United Arab Emirates, accused by human rights groups of systematic violations, are likely to see a silver lining in the survey and a reconfirmation of their policy of economic and relative social liberalism coupled with absolute political control.

Forty-four percent of those surveyed named the UAE as their preferred country, as opposed to less than 22 percent opting for Canada, the United States, Turkey or Britain.

In a white paper accompanying the survey, Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, concluded that the survey showed that “the demands and dreams of young Arabs are neither radical nor revolutionary,” and that they were unlikely to “fall for the false utopias or ‘charismatic’ leaders their parents fell for.”

Jihad Azour, the International Monetary Fund’s top Middle East person, said in his contribution to the white paper that “what is needed is a new social contract between MENA (Middle East and North Africa) governments and citizens that ensures accountability, transparency and a commitment to the principle that no one is left behind. … The latest youth survey makes clear that we have a long way to go.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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