Lack of jobs drives terrorist recruitment, say young Arabs

Poll of Arab youth finds rise of ISIS is the Middle East's biggest challenge, but tracks steep decline in support for its message

A chronic lack of jobs and economic hardship is seen to be the primary driver behind young people joining Islamic State, a poll of youth across the Arab world has found.

More than 20 per cent of Arab youth said widespread unemployment helped to feed terrorism recruitment, according to the 2016 Arab Youth Survey, with people in 8 of the 16 countries polled citing it as a bigger draw for ISIS than religious extremism.

But while half of teens and young people saw ISIS as the biggest problem currently facing the Middle East, the survey tracked a steep decline in support for its message. Just 13 per cent of young Arabs could imagine supporting the extremist group, down from 19 per cent in 2015. The vast majority – 1 in 6 – believe ISIS will fail in creating a caliphate in the Arab world.

“Tactic support for the group is declining,” said a summary report by the survey’s sponsor, public relations firm Asda’a Burson-Marsteller.

“Daesh exploits existing problems,” Hassan Hassab, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said in an analysis of the findings. “It did not simply invent the problems the responders identified as factors. Daesh… is a symptom of a growing disease that needs to be tackled, and not just the disease itself.

The eighth annual survey is a barometer for the aspirations of the MENA region’s more than 100 million young people. Based on 3,500 interviews with respondents aged 18 to 24, it shows a growing disillusionment with the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011.

In 2016, only 36 per cent of young people said they felt the Arab world was in better shape following the upheaval, down from 72 per cent in 2012. Of the 16 countries in the poll, only Egypt was felt to be better positioned after its uprising.

More than half of teens and young adults agreed that maintaining stability was more important than promoting democracy. In 2011, 92 per cent of Arab youth said “living in a democracy” was their most cherished wish.

For the fifth year running, young Arabs picked the UAE as their top country to live in, with 22 per cent of votes, followed by the US with 15 per cent. The GCC state is seen as a “model country” that is secure, and the preferred location to set up a business.

Fear of economic hardship remains a common thread across the Arab world, where joblessness is estimated at 11.5 per cent; among the highest in the world. Some 66 per cent of Arab youth admitted to concern over falling oil prices, up from 52 per cent in 2015. Despite this, 78 per cent believe they are still entitled to receive energy subsidies and any cuts should only affect expatriates.

“For the Middle East as a while, the economic prospects have dimmed significantly,” Christian Koch, director of the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center Foundation, said of the findings. As a result, many Arab states are eyeing subsidy cuts and tax increases, and increasing their efforts in economic diversification. “All of this is happening in a region where more than half of the population is under the age of 25,” he said. ‘Governments will have to adjust to the fact that today’s youth seek not only economic but also political opportunities.”

Two-thirds of young Arabs want their leaders to do more to improve their personal freedoms and to safeguard human rights, particularly for women. In Saudi Arabia, the most conservative Gulf state, 90 per cent of respondents said leaders should do more to aid women.

Nearly half of those polled said Sunni-Shia relations in the Arab world were deteriorating, and 52 per cent felt religion played too big a role in the region. Arab youth were also broadly in favour of the 2015 international nuclear deal struck with Iran, with only 39 per cent opposing it. Divisions were clear in youth perceptions of the Syria conflict, with 39 per cent viewing it as a proxy war fought by regional and global powers, 29 per cent citing it as a revolution against the Bashar al-Assad regime, and just over a fifth believing it to be a civil war among Syrians.

The Arab Youth Survey 2016 polled young adults in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, UAE and Yemen. The survey was carried out by polling firm Penn Schoen Berland, on behalf of Asda’a Burson-Marsteller.