The Voice of Arab Optimism

In his first speech as US Secretary of State, at the University of Virginia, John Kerry spoke of youth in the Middle East and North Africa. He told the students: "They seek the same things that you do: opportunity."

In the wake of the uprisings of 2011, these young people are more confident than ever that they will be able to find such opportunity. Despite the grave challenges facing their region, the vast majority of Arab youth believe their best days are ahead of them.

That was the dominant finding of our fifth ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth, a face-to-face study of 3,000 Arab men and women aged 18-24 in 15 Arab nations. Two-thirds of all those interviewed said they were optimistic about what the future holds for their country, and 60% said they felt the economy of the MENA region as a whole was heading in the right direction.

The optimism of young Arabs stands in marked contrast with much of the rest of the world. According to the 2012 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, when asked if they were satisfied with the way things were going in their country of residence, the majority of the population in just three countries worldwide answered "yes" -- in China, Germany and Egypt. Less than a third of respondents in the US (29%) said they believed their country was heading in the right direction.

These comparisons, of course, may be inexact but it is clear that the downbeat view of Middle East life held by many outside observers is not one shared by the Arab world's largest demographic: young people.

As intractable as many of the region's problems are, Arab youth are proud of what they have achieved and excited by their untapped potential. An impressive 87% say they are more proud to be an Arab today, and this heightened self-esteem is notable in each of the 15 countries we surveyed.

Young Arabs reflect youth in the United States in their eagerness to grasp opportunity. These days they worry about the same things too. Lack of democracy used to be the biggest concern of Middle East youth identified in our research. Following the uprisings, Arab youth are prioritizing economic issues, such as being paid a fair wage and owning their home; the rising cost of living is their chief concern, while jobs are also seen as one of the region's biggest challenges -- unsurprisingly, considering youth unemployment in MENA is twice the global average.

When MTV interviewed Barack Obama during his second presidential campaign, the first question -- gathered from the channel's youth audience across America -- was on jobs: How would the President tackle youth unemployment if re-elected? Young people in the region MENA are asking a similar question of their leaders.

The question may be the same, but Arab youth are asking it in larger numbers and at a higher volume: two-thirds of the MENA population is under the age of 30, compared with less than a fifth of the US populace.

And that brings me to why ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller conducts the Arab Youth Survey every year in the first place. Our aim is to improve access to reliable data in a region where research into public opinion is often limited.

As the stakes of inaction on the critical social, economic and developmental challenges facing the Middle East become higher, the importance of genuine, evidence-based insights cannot be overestimated. That is why we make our annual survey freely available and why it is growing. Since 2008 it has more than doubled in size - and we hope to broaden and enrich the study further in the future.

Five years ago is another era. Back then, the world was just coming to terms with the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, and few predicted the social and political awakening the Arab world has experienced over the last two years.

There used to be considerable reluctance to discuss youth attitudes openly in the Middle East. The fact that dialogue on Arab youth attitudes is becoming more open and inclusive can only be a good thing, and it is our commitment as the region's leading public relations consultancy to promote that dialogue through our annual Arab Youth Survey.

Sunil John is the Chief Executive Officer of ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller, the region's leading public relations consultancy. The findings of the Survey are available on: www.arabyouthsurvey.com.