Arab Dawn: Shining a light on optimism in the Middle East

The Arab Spring didn’t birth the political revolution many had hoped for. But as Bessma Momani discovered while researching her new book, youth in the Middle East are now spurring a social and cultural shift.

By: /
February 11, 2016
The sunrise is seen from the summit of Mount Moses, near the city of Saint Catherine, in the Sinai Peninsula, south of Egypt, December 9, 2015. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By some estimates, the Arab world has the globe’s youngest population. The Middle East is experiencing an unprecedented “youth bulge,” with over 30 percent of its population between the ages of 15 and 29. The memory of the Arab Spring, which kicked off five years ago, conjures up images of young men and women protesting in public squares and connecting via social media for the purpose of forcing change. But what of these young people now, half a decade after the protests watched around the world?

CIGI Senior Fellow Bessma Momani travelled the region, from Morocco right through to the Gulf, and explores this question in her new book, Arab Dawn – Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring. “Talking about it now,” Momani says of the Arab Spring, “[it] doesn’t seem like a revolution. But the thing I want the book to point out is that even though there wasn’t a political revolution, there’s a social and cultural revolution happening right now.”

In conversation with Momani last month at the Munk School of Global Affairs, Munk’s founding director Janice Stein called Arab Dawn “the most optimistic book about the Arab world I can remember reading.” From university attendance to technological interconnectedness to more rights for women, Momani indeed describes a “huge intergenerational change” and increased opportunity for the educated, modern and engaged youth of today.  

For Arab Dawn, Momani “went to a lot of bus stops, train stations, a lot of malls.” She also went to meet young people and their families in villages and more rural communities across the region. “I think you’d expect huge variation, but that’s the thing that was so interesting – literally the same comments I would get out of students in the middle of Morocco, I would hear again in Jordan, in the United Arab Emirates…that’s when I started to realize I was on to something, that this was not just going to be this great tale of visiting the region, because there was a pattern emerging.”

One of the things that stood out for Momani on her travels was an overwhelming hunger for meritocracy; “a feeling that ‘I deserve better.’” This desire was particularly evident when it came to women and education. “I spoke to a lot of women in the region who are pursuing education in ways that are unbelievable…To them an education is about the attainment of a status symbol. It’s about confidence, about holding your head up high…This is one of the only times in adult life they can shine on the basis of merit and merit alone. That is in my mind a social and cultural change from 30 to 40 years ago, where nobody ever talked about merit – maybe about the appointment of your father, the sect of your uncle, but never about your merit.”

Arab Dawn also highlights the transformative power of an education abroad. Through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, for example, tens of thousands of Saudi women are studying and obtaining degrees in places like the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Germany. “And by the way,” Momani noted, “they’re not going back with a piece of paper, they’re going back with ideas and values. I find fathers who have daughters coming back means the fathers change too – they can only withstand pressure from daughters for so long! It’s like, ‘I lived on my own for five years, got a degree, did groceries on my own, and now I need my father’s permission to change my cell phone plan?’”

For many young people, spending time outside the Arab region also means being exposed to more progressive values. Momani asked Qatari and Saudi students abroad in the West what they would like to take back to the Gulf; environmentalism and multiculturalism were high on the list, she said, remarkable for states so dependent on oil, and where minorities are treated “despicably.” 

While Momani is optimistic about the changes education can bring, she concedes that degrees often don’t translate into stable jobs or futures. “I saw no desire to work in the bloated public sectors [of the past] – this part of the world has the fastest and highest rates of entrepreneurialism.” Momani witnessed young people starting their own businesses, everything from selling sparkly cell phone covers to creating interesting apps. The challenge, she notes, is seeing if this entrepreneurial class can come together, and if they can “scale up” in order to create jobs. 

"They say, ‘I just put on the TV and I can tell you how society should work. I can go on Facebook.' This generation has access to information – the connectivity of Arab youth is phenomenal."

“Part of it too,” Momani explained to the audience, “is that governments in the Arab region are not doing enough in terms of policy planning…There’s enormous amounts of money put into malls, and into resorts, into towers, but they don’t deliver productive jobs. And I think that’s where the onus [should be on] the international financial communities and donors. The West, if they’re going to have some sort of carrot, needs to say look, you need to think about inclusive growth, how this is going to produce jobs that young people need.”

The youth Momani met with are keeping a keen eye towards the leaders meant to be providing them with opportunity. “They say, ‘I just put on the TV and I can tell you how society should work. I can go on Facebook. It shouldn’t be this hard to get things done in this country, to get traffic moving, to get a license.’ This generation has access to information – the connectivity of Arab youth is phenomenal.”

The cohort Momani describes in Arab Dawn are plugged in, self-aware, passionate, and “truly and utterly wanting a social and cultural revolution.” But they are also angry and frustrated, and determined to continue questioning and demanding more from their leaders.

Asked by Stein what would need to happen for Momani to take a less optimistic viewpoint than the one in Arab Dawn, she said: “If we start to see a metastasizing of ISIS; if we start to see the Islamic State in its current form increase and increase in size, which I actually don’t think is going to happen. I think that it’s not a state, it’s two cities and roads, but if I was going to say, you know, I’ve got to burn the book and start all over again, it would be if the territory of this thing keeps increasing in size. If they reach Damascus, which I don’t think is going to happen.”

Ultimately, like many, Momani has faith in the ‘demographic dividend’ this generation is on the road to providing. “Now it is the Arab world’s turn. And if its youth believe that the best days are ahead, that is reason enough to keep an open mind about the region.”

CIGI is hosting a book launch for Arab Dawn, featuring a discussion with Bessma Momani, on Thursday, February 11. Register for the webcast here