Should we be in the least bit surprised at the huge number of Arabs who want to emigrate from the region, particularly from the Levant? What is keeping young people in their home countries during wars, civil unrest, power cuts and economic crises, let alone the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic? It is a theme that everyone with friends in the region hears about anecdotally. The sense of frustration and despair is acute.
The 2020 Arab Youth Survey, which was published last week, confirms all of this and more. The 12th edition of this annual report reinforces the anecdotes with hard facts. Nearly half of young Arabs have thought about leaving, rising to 63 percent in the Levant. It is an even more remarkable figure given that the main survey of Arabs aged 18 to 24 took place between early January and early March, before the pandemic really hit. But the survey’s designers realized the unique circumstances and usefully backed up the main report with a COVID-19 pulse survey of 600 young Arabs in the middle of August.
This year’s survey has boosted the number of those polled from 3,300 to 4,000 and has continued to add new countries, with it now reaching 17 nations in the Middle East and North Africa. This year it featured Sudan for the first time, alongside the return of Syria after nine years. When considering the latter, bear in mind that more than 5.5 million Syrians have already left the country since the crisis began in 2011.
It is the Levant that stands out. In Lebanon, 77 percent of those asked wanted to leave — a figure that will surely have risen in the aftermath of the pandemic and the August explosion in Beirut. Of those who wanted to leave the Levant, 49 percent wanted a permanent new home country. The pulse survey found that 32 percent were more likely to leave as a result of the pandemic. The figures are high in North African states too, but considerably lower in the Gulf, where the standard of living is higher, with the UAE once again the favored Arab nation to move to.
What is driving this? Dissatisfaction is intense, which explains the lofty levels of support for protests in the region. Some 82 percent of youths from four nations that have experienced such protests — Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan — backed them. These four countries all saw their leaders turfed out of office last year as a result. The survey records great positivity toward the protests, with 82 percent of young Iraqis believing they will lead to real change in their country. Is this hope, desperation or a cast-iron belief that change will occur? Clearly, if so many want to leave, one figures it is unlikely to be the last of these.
Lack of economic opportunity is a key part of the distress. Youth unemployment remains painfully high at about 27 percent, which is double the global average, with the pandemic likely to increase the figure considerably. For example, take Jordan, where economists believe unemployment will rise to as high as 35 percent by the end of 2020.
The anger that energizes the protesters is rooted in the region’s widespread corruption and poor governance. This survey shows that 98 percent of Levantine youth and 95 percent of North African youth perceive high levels of corruption — figures that are extraordinary in such a poll. Tackling this is the top priority for most of those surveyed, alongside the creation of jobs.
The fact is that most young Arabs will not be able to leave. This is a privilege of the richer, better educated classes; those with connections. But even they will struggle to find new homes given the increased anti-immigrant feeling throughout Europe and in the US, with the building of walls and barriers to block their paths. Those without jobs and resources may find themselves trapped at home, likely with increasing personal and household debt. They may consequently be more likely to join the protesters lining the streets of capital cities such as Baghdad and Beirut.
The full impact of the pandemic has yet to be felt by Arab economies and societies. For sure, young people have suffered less from the medical impact of COVID-19, but it is they rather than the older generations who are going to live with the aftershocks and consequences for years, if not decades. Who wants to see them endure soul-crushing levels of poverty?
Resource-poor countries in the Levant and across North Africa will need to rebuild, but this will be on the flimsiest of foundations unless they rebuild a relationship of trust with their own populations. None of these countries can afford to lose the one major resource they benefit from: Human talent. If the brain drain accelerates, what chance does one give these countries of progressing? To do so, they will first need to tackle the pandemic and implement an effective strategy to cushion the population from its worst effects. Stopgap measures will not suffice.
Almost 10 years on from the start of the so-called Arab Spring in Tunisia, the elites in the Levant and North Africa in particular should be taking a hard look at this survey. They must listen to their people and call time on the sort of inept governance that has led to this state of affairs. A failure to do this will, in all likelihood, see the protests get more and more violent, while the virus of extremism may also have its own massive wave.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
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