The economy, corruption and unemployment. These are by far the top concerns amongst citizens across 18 Arab countries, according to a ground-breaking new poll released by YouGov this week.
The optimism and hope that inspired the Arab Spring nine years ago has vanished, upended by a new wave of anger sweeping the region. The result has been the toppling of Algeria’s president and protests across Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt.
The poll also revealed most Arab citizens feel their leaders should prioritise the economy over all other issues, be they national security related, religious or sectarian.
Arab leaders must take note of this data. But it should also inform the decision-making of EU policymakers too. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after all are the EU’s backyard. MENA and the ripple effect of what begins there will inevitably reach Europe too; the refugee crisis proved that.
The poll results also suggest the EU has a timely opportunity to encourage positive reform in the MENA region. The EU has long hoped to encourage reform through initiatives like the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the Union for the Mediterranean. The basis for these initiatives was “shared values.”
This new poll, draw from the responses of thousands of Arabs across 18 MENA countries, shows these shared values exist more today than ever before. Respondents supported economic liberalisation, women’s empowerment, religious minority rights, greater transparency and criticised the politicisation of religion. You could say Middle Eastern citizens increasingly embody the values of the EU itself.
This is particularly notable given one of the biggest historical criticisms of EU initiatives like the ENP and the Union for the Mediterranean has been that it seeks to impose European standards in an imperial “civilising” effort towards Europe’s neighbouring regions.
But with the emergence of a new generation of Middle Eastern citizens embodying home-grown, forward-looking values, it is unlikely such EU efforts will now be viewed by Arab people as an attempt to impose alien values upon the region.
But the window of opportunity is narrow. Should the economic situation in nations like Iraq or Lebanon continue to deteriorate (both nations cited corruption as the biggest problem for their country), the inclination for the masses to rally around more extreme political positions may once again return.
Indeed, economic fears were present across the MENA region. 61% of respondents across the Arab world believed the future would be better if economic matters were put above all other policy issues, be they political, religious or sectarian.
Such a decisive majority opinion on this issue is likely to be due to the sheer anger in the Arab world over corruption. Respondents from every MENA region overwhelmingly cited corruption as the single biggest problem for their country. 42% of respondents were concerned about unemployment, hardly surprising given that across the region, 30% of young people are currently unemployed.
This all makes it timelier than ever for the EU to leverage its trade relations with the MENA region to help bridge the divide between citizens and the State in the Middle East.
But here, too, the EU’s efforts are under threat. The EU’s trade leverage is competing with that of economic powers like China. China’s investment in the Arab world and the conditions attached to them – in relation to equal opportunities, economic participation and fair competition – differ to those of the EU.
Not only is China not concerned with using its economic ties to support forward-looking values and principles, it could potentially halt or even reverse some of the progress that has already been made.
If the EU fails to scale up its engagement with the Middle East soon, countries like China will fill the vacuum.
This increases the imperative for the EU to ensure that it engages with the Arab world in a way that strengthens it economically.
Increasing the opportunities and economic standing of Arab populations will alleviate some of the frustration and anger they feel that has built-up as a result of a lack of opportunity. However, this engagement must also build on the increasing convergence of shared values which will lead to a more tolerant and liberal MENA.
- Dr. Saqib Qureshi is a senior business strategist and expert on democratic policy development who has advised governments in Canada, London, Washington DC and Dubai. His forthcoming book is The Broken Contract: Making Our Democracies Efficient, Representative, and Accountable.
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