x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Look to the Arab youth, Mr Obama

Since 63 per cent of the Middle East's population is under 29, US policy in the region should address their concerns.

Policy analysts believe the concerns of young Arabs such as Mohamed al Mahmoud should guide the United States in its approach to the Middle East.
Policy analysts believe the concerns of young Arabs such as Mohamed al Mahmoud should guide the United States in its approach to the Middle East.

ABU DHABI // Memo to President-elect Obama: forget what you usually read and hear about Arab young people. They are optimistic, they believe hard work will pay off and they are eager for challenges to relieve their boredom, recent public opinion polls show. So muffle the anti-Islamist rhetoric of the past eight years, Mr Obama, and reinvent US foreign policy towards the Middle East with one vital group in mind: its youth.

That is the message issued by top policy analysts at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Dubai School of Government, as the hard-knuckled debate over the president-elect's priorities and the feverish scramble for jobs in his government began in earnest this week. "In the past eight years, Washington has viewed the struggle of Arab youth as political, theological and ideological," said Navtej Dhillon, director of the Middle East Youth Initiative at Brookings.

The real struggle of Arab young people, however, is "material" - they want a better standard of living, Mr Dhillon said. "It is therefore time for Washington to rethink its foreign aid and find new ways of co-operation in promoting education and employment in the Middle East." A Gallup survey of some 50,000 Muslims in more than 35 predominantly Muslim countries and examined in the book Who Speaks for Muslims: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, published in March, supports Mr Dhillon's portrayal.

When asked what the West can do for Muslims, the number one response was to "reduce unemployment and improve the economic infrastructure". When asked to describe their dream for the future, a majority of Muslims cited getting a better job. The "quiet game" is what Djavad Salehi-Isfahani calls a strategy of addressing this desire of Arab young people for a better material life and treating them as an asset rather than a threat.

Prof Salehi-Isfahani, professor of economics at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, said such an approach by Mr Obama would yield more dividends in the Middle East than the Bush administration's preoccupation with "great game" geopolitics and intrigue and the fight against Islamic radicalism. "Arab young people don't seem to care much about what US policymakers consider defining factors in the Middle East. For them what is defining are jobs, education and marriage. What they want is the 'quiet game'," said Prof Salehi-Isfahani, also a visiting scholar at Brookings.

Despite the general optimism of Arab youth - an Asda'a Burson-Marsteller survey released this week in Dubai found 52 per cent of the young people polled in six Middle East nations said their country was heading in the right direction - there are worrying signs for Mr Obama to heed. The Arab world has experienced an economic boom in recent years, but the current global economic slowdown is certain to be felt in the Middle East, especially in countries lacking oil resources. And that optimism in polls presents a challenge: meeting rising expectations.

Even before the latest crisis, only 23 per cent of the polled youth replied affirmatively when asked if the area where they lived was conducive to finding a job, according to a Gallup survey of 11 countries published in June. And while an average of 92 per cent of Arab youth, including those in the Palestinian Territories, said they feel their lives have "an important purpose or meaning", an average of 37 per cent of the youth surveyed said they had experienced boredom "a lot" of the previous day. The latter statistic is especially revealing, said Paul Dyer, a research associate at the Dubai School of Government.

"Enthusiasm and a positive outlook are important, but the fact that many Arab young people, most of whom are probably young women, say they're frequently bored, means that educational systems, opportunities for civic participation and employment opportunities are lacking," Mr Dyer said. Unemployment is indeed a problem. Sixty-three per cent of the population of the Middle East is under 29, and their jobless rates is nearly twice the world average.

The region's "youth bulge" poses enormous social, economic and political challenges as young people delay marriage and live at home longer, causing hand-wringing among policymakers worldwide. Paradoxically, this high percentage of youth - and more broadly, the number of people of working age - is at the same time a golden opportunity the Obama administration should use to its advantage, Mr Dhillon said.

"While the number of people of working age so outnumbers the number of children and elderly dependent upon them, we should do everything we can to create opportunities for this generation. "If we lose this generation, we'll lose this historic gift." cnelson@thenational.ae