Young Arabs Say Religion Plays Too Large a Role in the Middle East

Young Arabs Say Religion Plays Too Large a Role in the Middle East

Muslims worship at Great Mosque of Gaza (Great Omari Mosque) during the holy month of Ramadan in Gaza City, Gaza.

SourceMustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Why you should care

Because the future is secular … or at least thinking that way now.

Young Arabs say the rising cost of living and unemployment are the biggest issues facing the Middle East, according to the region’s largest survey of youth opinion.

Some 56 percent of respondents cited the cost of living and 45 percent chose joblessness as their top concern in the 2019 Arab Youth Survey, now in its 11th year.

“The mother of all priorities for the region is tackling youth unemployment,” said Jihad Azour, International Monetary Fund regional director, at last week’s launch of the survey. “All economic policies will fail if we don’t reduce unemployment.”

The study, commissioned by Dubai-based communications agency Asda’a BCW, is based on interviews with 3,300 people ages 18 to 24 in 15 countries, excluding war-torn Syria and Qatar, which is under a trade embargo imposed by states including the United Arab Emirates.

Unemployment has reached more than 30 percent in many countries across the Middle East and North Africa, and the IMF says this year’s projected regional growth rate of 1.3 percent is insufficient to create enough jobs for the 2.8 million youths joining the workforce every year.

A majority of the study’s respondents believe their governments should provide jobs, housing and energy subsidies, illustrating the challenge for Middle Eastern states struggling to balance economic reform with political stability.

This attitude was most marked in the Gulf states, where 82 percent said the government should provide jobs for all citizens.

Some 78 percent of respondents were also worried about the quality of education — identified by the IMF as an urgent area for reform — and about half said they would like to attend university in the West.

Two-thirds said religion played too large a role in the Middle East, while half said religious values were holding the region back.

In foreign affairs, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were seen as extending their regional influence more than other Arab countries during the past five years.

Three-fifths of those interviewed said the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October last year would either have no impact or only temporarily tarnish Saudi Arabia’s international image, while 35 percent said the incident would have a long-term impact on the kingdom.

The share of young Arabs regarding the U.S. as an enemy has almost doubled since 2016, while Russia’s standing has risen, with 64 percent seeing it as an ally. Two-thirds regard Iran as an enemy, with a third viewing the Islamic Republic as an ally.

The survey also found 59 percent believed relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have worsened during the past decade, compared with 47 percent in 2016.

The survey also shed light on social concerns often avoided as taboo subjects in the region.

About a third of respondents said they knew people suffering from mental health issues, with most respondents complaining about insufficient access to quality medical care for such problems.

About 57 percent also said drug use was on the rise, especially in the Levant, where more than three-quarters of those surveyed said more youths were taking narcotics. Some 57 percent also said drugs were easy to obtain.

Khaled al-Maeena, a Saudi commentator, welcomes the publication of findings on little-discussed subjects. “If you don’t identify a problem, you can’t solve it — the drugs issue is fiercer than the terror issue,” he says. “In some countries you can find them easier than a cigarette.”

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By Simeon Kerr

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