How Arab Youth See the Middle East

Thursday, May 5, 2016
Ahmed Saad/Reuters

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
(via videoconference from Washington, DC)

Donald A. Baer

Worldwide Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Burson-Marsteller

Deborah Amos

International Correspondent, National Public Radio

Donald A. Baer, chief executive officer of Burson-Marsteller, and CFR's Steven A. Cook join NPR's Deborah Amos to discuss public opinion trends among Arab youth, including perceptions of economic opportunities, religion, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The panelists focus on a recent study of public opinion among 3,500 Arab youth and discuss the findings in terms of the broader political and economic context of the modern Middle East.

AMOS: Welcome, everybody. You can finish up your lunch and listen to us. I want to welcome you to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “The Future of the Arab World: Youth Perceptions Looking Forward.” I’m Deb Amos with National Public Radio.

I want to introduce two guests who will be speaking today. Donald Baer, who is the worldwide chair and executive officer of Burson-Marsteller, and a member of the board of PBS, close to my heart. Steven Cook, he is the—(laughs)—yes, the guy in the box—Eni Enrico—I can’t say all of these things—senior fellow for Middle East and African Studies, Council on Foreign Relations.

And welcome to an on-the-record meeting. We’re going to talk about a very, very interesting study. And every year these studies always reveal something new about the Arab world and its youth, a population that is the majority in almost every Arab country in the region. This is 3,500 face-to-face interviews, which is unusual. It is with young people between the ages of 18 and 24 in 16 Arab countries. And the attitudes that were revealed in this study would be very much at home in the electoral politics in this election. In some ways, they are Trump voters. They are worried about ISIS. They are worried about jobs. And they value stability over democracy. That’s not the only thing, but those are some of the headlines in the study.

And so we’re going to go through some of these numbers so we can understand what these attitudes are. And I want to start with something that really caught my attention when we were talking about this study yesterday and deciding how to unpack this. And that’s a question that was asked: Are you skeptical about the role of traditional religious values in your society? And the numbers are striking. Let’s talk a little bit about what the numbers and why that might be. Let’s start with Don.

BAER: Great. Thank you very much, Deborah. And thanks to all of you.

Yeah, the question, as it was put, was yes or no, religious plays too big of a role in the Middle East. And overall, across all of the countries, 52 percent said, yes, religious plays too big a role. Twenty-nine percent said they thought it didn’t play too big a role. They didn’t say it played the right role, but they were answering the question. And 19 percent said they didn’t know or they didn’t really have an opinion. So that’s a pretty stunning number. I mean, a majority of the Arab youth in this category think that religious plays too big a role. But it’s even more interesting when you begin to break it down according to the different countries in the region.

So in the GCC, the Gulf state countries, 61 percent think it plays too big a role and 25 percent think that’s not true. In Levant and Yemen, 44 percent. So not quite a majority, but only 37 percent said they don’t think it plays too big a role. And in North Africa, 47 percent agree with this statement. So it’s pretty stunning across the region, especially in light of what I think Americans would—and others from other parts of the world would think would be the attitude.

AMOS: And, Steven Cook, is it surprising to you that in the Gulf that number is so high among young people?

COOK: Well, it’s not—in a variety of ways, not all that surprising that so many young people believe that religious plays too much. First, the Gulf, of all the regions that make up the broader Middle East, is perhaps the most globalized. The Gulf countries are becoming centers of international commerce, logistics. The young Emirates live among large numbers of expats from all over the world. The same thing among Qataris and elsewhere. So I think there’s—that factor is the first thing.

And then I think there’s also a reaction given what has been happening more broadly in the region, whether it’s the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood experiment in governance in Egypt, revulsion—as the survey points out—revulsion at the interpretations of Islam coming from the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has clearly had an impact on the way in which Arab youth view religion People have asked over and over again, what is the answer to the Islamic State problem in the region. And what I keep saying is that the answer really is already there. And you see it among young people and others who have taken it upon themselves to counter the Islamic State’s particular religious narrative. And I think that’s reflected in the survey.

AMOS: Don, another sort of headline for me is that a majority do favor stability over democracy. I want you to talk a little bit about what those numbers are and how they’ve changed over time.

BAER: Well, it has changed over time. And they’ve moved away from, after the Arab Spring, a sense that democracy was really all that mattered. And you can see a very steady decline over the five years of the survey. The good thing about this survey is that this is the eighth annual ASDA Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey. ASDA Burson-Marsteller is the name of our Middle Eastern subsidiary. And I should say, the CEO there Sunil John, who could not be here today, is the person who really pioneered this work and carried it forward over those eight years with our great public opinion research firm, which is called Penn Schoen Berland, which is part of our larger firm.

So you see that decline. In fact, when asked the question: Was the Arab Spring good for the Middle East—right, so in 2012, the first full year after the Arab Spring uprising, 72 percent of all Arab youth said, yes, it was a good thing for the Middle East. This past year, this year, 2015 going into 2016, 36 percent. And that is steady really across the board, except for in Egypt, where they still—a majority—or near majority still thinks the Arab Spring was a positive thing.

AMOS: Steven, can you unpack that number, that Egyptians still think it was a good thing?

COOK: Yeah. Well, I’d like to look at the way in which Egyptians are responding and the questions asked, because the question is what Arab Spring when it comes to Egypt? Remember, over the course of the last five years we had the long transition from Mubarak to Morsi, the very difficult year of Morsi, and then the return of the military and a military-backed political system under current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

So it strikes me, given the kind of manufacturing of support for Sisi, the kind of overwhelming effort on the part of the Egyptian government to generate and maintain support for Sisi, that it’s possible that that number, that 61 percent number, reflects the fact that the government in Egypt has in fact fused the Arab Spring—a term that I rarely use—the uprising, the promise of the revolution and the second revolution, on June 30th, which is the coming to power of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi into one broad category regarding the Arab Spring. And I think that despite whatever troubles are happening in Egypt, there remains a significant amount of support for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

At the same time, and this could also be a function of that kind of anomalous-seeming number of 61 percent, is that there is a tremendous amount of opposition to Sisi. And when you hear voices coming from the region saying don’t give up on the Arab youth, the revolutions aren’t over, they’re still unfolding, that those people and many activists in Egypt believe that the Arab Spring is not over and this is still an unfolding story. And that they will, as they brought down Mubarak and brought down Morsi, they will—they will forge a more democratic and open society, even in—even in Sisi’s Egypt.

I think that it’s—one second, Don. I think that that is something based on faith rather than what we’re actually seeing in Egypt, which is the institutionalization of authoritarianism once again. I think the most profound number here though in the thing, if we can move away from Egypt, is that in Tunisia, the country that the media often refers to as the Arab Spring success story, totally erroneously, in that country only 24 percent of youth polled believe that the Arab Spring had made things better.

AMOS: Don.

BAER: So I just wanted to say, I think this forced question choice between stability and democracy is a bit a false choice. And when you plumb deeper into the findings here, you begin to see that the roots of democracy and the freedom that it helps to engender have become very strong. I think another one of the striking findings is that two thirds of the Arab youth, and it’s pretty much the same for men and women, think that more attention and support for human rights for women and personal freedoms for everyone need to be part of what governments are helping to enforce. So you begin to see the real roots of modernization that are critically important, that the—what happened five, six years ago helped to unleash—now being really—I mean, 68, 67 percent saying that they expect this now as a matter of course.

AMOS: But there’s some contradictions that I see in the numbers. So the model country that young Arabs point to is the Emirates, which offers stability, offers mobility—economic mobility, but is certainly very short on freedom of speech, freedom of association. You know, it’s very tough, if you live there, to have a political voice. So how do you square this notion that they want more freedom and they want more gender equality, yet the UAE—

BAER: I’m not sure that it’s squareable. But of course, the thing about the UAE that they also point to—you know, there’s another question in here about the role of economic opportunity and jobs. It’s a very acute issue that a lack of jobs really is one of the top things that concerns people. Only in the Gulf States, and especially in the UAE, do they say—68 percent of them—say that there are good job opportunities available for them. So some of this is about if they feel that they have what they need to build a good life economically, some of these other things perhaps sort of fall to the background in terms of how they make the judgements about what the ideal situation is.

AMOS: Steven, is this still a restive generation, or is this a generation, five years after the Arab Spring, sort of curbing its ambitions or its aspirations, if you just look at—

COOK: I think it’s both. I think it’s both. I don’t think we can make a broad generalization about it. Although, let me—just going back to your previous question and the previous issue about human rights and women’s issues, I’m not at all surprised by the large numbers in support of it, but I wonder how different that is post-Arab uprisings than it was, for example, say, in 2008 and 2009, where the region was quite restive and there were the first demands—or the first explicit demands.

I mean, Arabs have been, you know, agitating for representative government and dignity for quite some time. So that’s a finding that, to me, is not entirely surprising. Nor is it entirely surprising that people look to the Emirates as a model, given the kind of—the overwhelming number of people who, you know, cite economic opportunity for a variety of the political pathologies that currently confront the region.

But back to your question, Deb, specifically to me about whether this is a restive generation. I think that in places like Egypt, in places like Tunisia and others, there’s been a certain—because things have been so tough, there’s been a certain demobilization and depoliticization of people who would like to move on, they want stability, they want economic opportunity. Some of these other things become—have become less important to them.

But there remains a core cadre of activists, people who are not satisfied with that, that they want—that they see their dignity not just through a job, but also through their ability to process their grievances through democratic institutions, their ability to express themselves freely, their ability to shape their own societies and their own governments, without the—you know, the kind of whims of authoritarian political systems. So my—and the fact that the new authoritarians of the region have not been able to impose their will on these groups I think sets us up for a prolonged period of actual instability and uncertainty in these countries.

AMOS: And I wanted to ask you, Don. This is, you know, a sequential snapshot. And we know that the differences over the last five years are stability versus democracy. Are there other trends that you can see with this generation that stand out in your mind in the numbers?

BAER: Well, that’s why I was going to the data here. And I think it relates to everything we’re talking about and a sense of openness. So one of the things we asked them about was their media consumption, right? Where, how, when, et cetera. So there’s some very interesting statistics there. And I don’t have the longitudinal on this. But on a daily basis, more young Arabs get their news online than from TV or print media. Now, that’s not unlike young people in every other part of the world, certainly in the United States. But it’s a change because, of course, we know that there’s a great deal more permeability when it comes to online media and their ability to seek and find what they’re looking for, that does have the potential of opening their minds and sort of creating a different kind of dynamic.

Thirty-two percent of them read news online daily. Twenty-nine percent watch TV news channels daily. And again, there are some international or global news networks that have only recently been available to many of these markets. Only 7 percent read newspapers daily. And if you think about where governments have the greatest opportunity to create a chokehold, if they choose to for censorship purposes, newspapers are a lot easier for them to keep out of circulation, certainly than digital media are. So that’s an interesting, I think, development and a trend line.

AMOS: And is it, Steven, a moment where stability versus democracy, it is more favorable, but do you see going forward that that remains, because there’s another interesting statistic, which is these young people still see the U.S. as a strong ally.

BAER: In fact, increasingly. They see the U.S.—I don’t have the exact number—maybe I do here—but 63 percent say they view the United States as an ally of their country, versus only 32 percent who consider it to be an enemy of their country. Now, a third of them who view the United States as an enemy is not a good number, but two thirds of them see the U.S. as an ally.

AMOS: And does that square, Steven, with what you see in the field?

COOK: Well, I’m going out to the field in about a week, so I’ll let you know when I come back. (Laughter.) But I mean, when I talk to people, when I see people, a lot of that is, of course, anecdotal. What I think is quite interesting—what some of the numbers here reveal is that when you ask Arab youth, what do they think are the biggest obstacles facing the Middle East, many of the things that they actually give relatively lower priority to are things that have been obsessions of American foreign policy for the better part of the last decade or more. Whether it’s the lack of democracy, Arab-Israeli conflict, even slow economic growth, which there’s kind of—they’re all over the map on this question of slow economic growth.

So the question is, how do they see the United States as an ally? It’s not a tremendous shock to me, given how much time I’ve spent in the Arab world, that young Arabs respect the institutions of the United States. They respect our form of government. They respect the kind of positive myths that animate American society, as well as being champion consumers of American culture. So those things, I think, go to the idea that the United States, despite, you know, what our policies have been in the region—and I think the numbers for Iraq on this particular question are profound, how much the Iraqis regard the United States as being an enemy. So if there’s kind of a policy takeaway, if it isn’t obvious to anybody already, is let’s not invade other countries and try to make them democracies. (Laughter.)

But it strikes me that the United States still continues to have a certain magnetism to young people, precisely because of our institutions and the way in which we believe we like to live, not because of the way in which we conduct ourselves in the Middle East.

AMOS: I want to move on to even a more recent piece of—study that you have done, because I think it’s revealing about American attitudes as compared to the attitudes of this generation. I’m sorry we don’t have a young Arab with us, which would have been really quite nice in a study like this.

BAER: That would not be me.

AMOS: Let’s talk a little bit about the new study, where you look at American attitudes and ask some of the same questions, and get some surprising answers.

BAER: And let me go back a moment, because in some ways we buried the lead, or one of the leads here, because there’s a big finding here about ISIS. Seventy-eight percent of these Arab youth rule out any possibility of supporting ISIS, even if ISIS were to stop using so much violence. And that number, 78 percent, in the last year is up from 60 percent who said the same thing. So there’s been a dramatic movement away from ISIS. Only 13 percent can say they can themselves supporting ISIS, even if it changes its tactics. Again, that’s down from 19 percent last year. So something is going on there about their perceptions of ISIS. And for whatever its worth, 76 percent of them say ISIS will fail to establish an Islamic state in the Arab world, and only 15 percent think that that will happen.

Now, we have done an additional piece of research—again, our polling firm, Penn Schoen Berland, within the last week because we were interested to—especially in the current environment that we’re in—to contrast American’s attitudes about Arabs and Arab youth to what the Arab youth are telling us about themselves. So this is a general population survey, all age groups in the United States, conducted between April 29th and May the 2nd. So remember what I just said about how they regard ISIS. Most Americans—more Americans than young Arabs are concerned about the rise of ISIS. So 85 percent of Americans are concerned, including 52 percent who are very concerned. In the polling business, that’s the top box. And that’s a very intense number of people who call themselves very concerned.

In the Arab Youth Survey, 77 percent of Arab youth are concerned. So they’re kind of the same. It’s interesting that the interests are aligned. Sure, there’s more Americas, 85 percent, but 77 percent of the Arab youth are concerned, including 50 percent who are very concerned, all right? Fifty-three percent of Americans think at least half of young Arabs living in the Middle East support ISIS. Right, so 53 percent, a clear majority. And for whatever its worth, 48 percent of Democrats think that, 51 percent of independents, and 60 percent of Republicans. But remember what I said about the findings of the Arab Youth Survey. Only 13 percent see themselves as ever supporting ISIS, no matter what they might do. So there’s a huge gulf between what people in this country think are the attitudes of Arab youth, and what Arab youth’s attitudes really are.

More Americans believe ISIS will succeed. So remember, think about the sense of fear that pervades here in the United States about ISIS. Thirty-seven percent of Americans think ISIS will establish an Arab state. Thirty percent disagree with that, as compared to what I said before, the 15 percent who think it could possibly succeed. Those are the Arab youth. Sixty-five percent of Americans think religious plays too big a role in the Middle East. That’s about the same amount, as we saw before, of Arab youth who think that it plays too big a role. The point of all this is, there’s a lot more alignment around their views and our views of what’s going on in that world, except when it comes to this question of how much they support ISIS. And it just underscores, I think, the level of fear and perhaps misunderstanding in this country about what’s really going on in that part of the world.

AMOS: I also want to ask Steven, that’s a two-way street. Yes, Arab youth are huge consumers of American comedy, American YouTube, American culture. But would they be surprised by those attitudes, that Americans think that they all support ISIS?

COOK: Actually, I don’t think that they would be surprised. I think they have quite a jaundiced view of the way in which Americans view them. I think they have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the kind of one-dimensional way in which the Arab world tends to be portrayed, whether it is in the media, this election cycle, or in, you know, movies or television programs. I don’t think that they would be at all surprised by that. I think they think it’s deeply unfair. I think the important point here, given the way in which Americans view the threat, and the way in which Arabs view the threat, but the differences in the way in which we perceive the reservoir or support for it, is a place that is ripe for exploration. I think Americans need to be educated about what’s going on in the region. And Arabs need to be better educated about what’s happening here in the United States on that score.

The problem is, is that here in Washington, in particular, we’ll take a look at these numbers and sit down and say, OK, great. What do we do about this? I would say there’s more work to be done here than there is actually there, because if these numbers are accurate, and they obviously are, it suggests what those of us who’ve been saying that this is not a purely military fight with the Islamic State, that that is obviously necessary, and that’s necessary to degrade ISIS and make it difficult for ISIS to do the kinds of things that it had been doing, but that in order to defeat ISIS that has to come from within the Middle East. And these attitudes of Arab youth would suggest that the Arab world is in a good position to do that.

It may take some time, because even if there are 15 percent or 13 percent who are supportive, that’s still a rather large number of people. But the overwhelming number, the voices—the cacophony of voices, the millions of flowers that are blooming in order to oppose this ideology should be a source of comfort for the American people. But too often we are if not told directly, it has been suggested that if we just dropped enough bombs on Raqqa, or Mosul, or wherever these people may be found, that this will resolve the problem. It won’t. Bombs are—people at the Council have probably heard me say this before—bombs are efficient in killing people, but not sentiments and ideology. And what you need is an overwhelming number of people on the other side offering appealing counter-narratives to those of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

BAER: Yeah, and I—just to follow on that—I think what all of this says at the end of the day is that there is great potential and even possibility for optimism about what the future can hold, but that this is a generation that is hanging in the balance. And if in fact they believe that the United States and the West has fearful and negative attitudes about them, that balance can be shifted in the wrong direction. But clearly there are trend lines here about them wanting to move in the direction of modernization and openness and economic growth and opportunity—

AMOS: Gender equality.

BAER: Gender equality, human rights, all of those things that I think we would want them to be moving in the direction on. And so it is all the more important that we educate ourselves fully and have a deeper understanding about what they really think, as distinct from what our fearful estimations of what they think are.

AMOS: That’s why this is on the record.

I’d like to open it up to questions from the audience. And just state your name and brief questions. There and then in the back.

Q: Thank you, Deb. Don, I’m Craig Charney. I used to be at Penn Schoen and Berland, but like many people have fled it, including Penn Schoen and Berland themselves.

You know, I’m particularly struck by the question of the alignment of the results on U.S.—attitudes towards the U.S. with the Sunni-Shia divide. Because the thing that’s striking for me as I look at the findings is that it’s essentially in the Shia-influenced world—Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iran, of course—that the U.S. scores are low. On the other hand, they are remarkably high compared to 10 years ago in the Sunni world. And Steven and I spent a lot of time worrying about this about 10 years ago. And I’m very struck by there, at least, the enemy of my enemy does seem to be my friend. I wonder if either of you would comment on the seeming alignment of the religious divide with attitudes towards America.

BAER: Steven?

AMOS: We’re going to throw this one to you, Steven.

COOK: Oh, I didn’t hear you. I’m sorry.

Hi, Craig. How are you? Good to see you.

I think that it is clear that—I think your last comment about the enemy of my enemy is my friend I think does have an impact on people. You do have a variety of Arab governments and others who are looking to the United States for safety and for security and to provide that security. There’s a tremendous amount of complaints around the region that the United States has not lived up to is promises in this area, or leadership I think is the way in which they use it. And that’s particular high in the Gulf. But to the extent that we are providing support, the extent that the United States really is the actor that is combatting the Islamic State, I think makes it—I think it makes it—it kind of reinforces the point.

I wonder how long that will last, however. I think we’ve seen the way in which the United States is viewed in the region waxing and waning over long periods of time. Now, on the Shia side, it doesn’t strike me as odd at all that young people regard the United States as an enemy. That’s obviously—you know, you have messages coming from Iran, efforts on the part of Iran to influence the region. There is a sense that the United States—and I think it’s on both sides—there’s a sense that the United States has over-weighted its support for Sunni regimes. And Sunni regimes are quite obviously hostile to the Shia. If you—Saudi Arabia, throughout the Gulf, there is a significant amount of hostility there.

So, again, it’s not entirely surprising to me. And Iraq I think we should set aside because I think across the board profoundly throughout Iraq, there is a sense of profound anger at the United States, the—despite the trillions of dollars that the United States has spent on Iraq, the millions of lives changed forever as a result of the invasion I think has a profound effect on the way in which young people there view the United States.

BAER: I’ll just—let me just add, it goes without saying that politics and attitudes related to political decisions are complicated in the region, which is why I won’t say it. But I think that we can’t view any of this without setting it against the context of the last 15 years, which has exacerbated many, many of the problems, and which are unresolved at this point. And while we’re not—well, they’re just unresolved. And so I think that what you identified to me comes back to why it’s critically important that in this country we have a better, clearer understanding of what is actually happening there and how different populations are approaching these things in slightly different ways, or sometimes radically different ways, but that we not lump it all together and also then have blind spots about what’s happening.

AMOS: But it’s noteworthy it’s a generational attitude. These are young people. So that means it can be profound and long. But, two, can you see where those numbers begin to go up in your study? So you’ve got eight years to look at.

BAER: Right. And I don’t have all of those eight years to us. I mean, the one—the one trend line that we have is not—well, whether it’s a good one or not I don’t know—is the question of was the Arab Spring a good thing. And that is a very dramatic trend line, to go from 72 percent to 36 percent. In terms of attitudes about the United States and the like, I don’t have that. But I think that it’s a good question about how things have changed over time with regard to that. The challenge, of course, in that is you might not see the trend that you want because every year is a little different in terms of, you know, what has been going on.

AMOS: But it would be interesting to look at those two numbers, disappointment with the Arab Spring and—

BAER: And the—yes, right.

AMOS: And where the divide falls.

BAER: One of the things we do see—it’s not the same—is this uptick in attitudes about the Emirates has tracked against the Arab Spring decline.

AMOS: As the model?

BAER: Yes.

AMOS: Question in the back? Yeah.

Q: James Reinl from Al Jazeera. Thanks so much for sharing the details of a very interesting report, which had a lot of information on how Arabs view America and America’s political process.

And with that in mind, my question is about how the current race for the White House is being viewed from over there. Over the last, you know, 24 hours we got a pretty clear idea that in November it’s going to be Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton’s got a back record in the Middle East, interventionist reflexes, think Iraq, Syria, Libya. Donald Trump speaks more about counterterrorism and stability of nations. How do you think this is viewed from over there? And do you think there might be any reason for a preference one way or the other?

BAER: So, again, Steven, I think you should go first. I do have a point of view about that.

COOK: Well, the last time I was in the region—(laughs)—everybody wanted to know about Donald Trump. It was the conversation started. One of the reasons why I was in the region was I was tired of hearing about Donald Trump. (Laughter.) But I think after so many invested so much in what they thought President Obama represented and what he might do in the region, and their hopes that were dashed, I think that largely Arabs—they may have preferences, but they don’t actually really believe that there’s much of a difference between any presidential candidate and what it means for them, and what it means for the core issues that they confront.

This is also—you know, we are an enormous presence throughout the Middle East. But what I’ve been struck by in so many trips back and forth after the uprisings was how profoundly inward the region is looking, and how profoundly inward Arab youth are. Many of you know that I spent some time Tahrir Square during the first uprising, January 25th, in which, you know, the United States was largely an afterthought. And I think a big story of the region—despite these numbers about looking at the United States as an ally or not—I think a big story is that Arabs—young Arabs have turned inwards and are search for solutions to their own problems, and would like to write their own history, if I could be a little poetic about it.

They have tried different models. They have sought to borrow from different places. And while, as they are—many of them are animated by ideas of Western liberalism, there are those who are searching for authenticity and their own way forward. So this is a long way of saying, yes, whoever is the president of the United States is going to have an impact on their security, on their own politics, and in some ways their own opportunities. But by and large, they don’t see them as being very different.

AMOS: Don?

BAER: Well, I think in the Arab world, as in every other part of the world that I’ve been in in the last six to eight months, the question of Donald Trump is the dominant question, or as I saw it—I was at Davos back in late January, so not so long ago. And notwithstanding the fact that there were many, many big issues for consideration—China’s growth rate, refugee situation in Europe, Brexit, any number of other things that might have been focused on, there were really only three questions that the great and the good in Davos had that I could perceive. Why Donald Trump? Why Bernie Sanders? And why not Hillary Clinton? And so today I think that’s kind of the same set of questions that you see.

I do think that this election has the potential to be deeply destabilizing with regard to relationships with that part of the world because of Mr. Trump’s stated objectives and attitudes, and because of the great deal of uncertainty that surrounds what a Trump presidency would be like for purposes of international relations, global affairs. And again, I think it’s true for the Arab world. I think it’s true for every other part of the world.

Q: Well, I’m Marlene Hess. And I’m chair—oh, stand up.

AMOS: And wait for the mic, please.

Q: Wait for the mic.

AMOS: Thank you.

Q: Thank you. I’m Marlene Hess. I’m chair of the International Women’s Health Coalition.

I’m wondering if you could tell me how many of the people that you surveyed were girls or women. And also, if you can comment at all, either of you, on what’s happening with youth and civil society in the region? I know some of our local partners in Egypt and in Pakistan are being threatened now for their activism. So I’m wondering what you’re seeing and what you think for the future.

BAER: Of the 3,500 people who were interviewed—and by the way, these were all face-to-face interviews, not telephone, not Internet—this is a statistically balanced survey. And so half of those who were interviewed statistically were female.

And in terms of the—I’m going to defer to Steven on the question of civil society.

AMOS: But one more detail I think was interesting that you told us yesterday. These are urban interviews.

BAER: So for the most part—and that is something you have to take into account. So when we’re doing face-to-face interviews, they’re more naturally going to be urban interviews, rather than those who live in non-urban settings, which potentially has some influence on the direction of some of the numbers with regard to human rights, and personal freedoms, and especially women’s rights. So we don’t know for sure what the attitude would be in some of those parts of the world that don’t have the urban touchpoints.

AMOS: Steven, on the issue of activism?

COOK: Yeah. Thanks for the terrific question, Marlene.

I think that there is an authoritarian, I don’t want to say rollback, but there is an authoritarian rollback—(laughter)—in the region. And one of the—what’s reflective of what is, I think, what’s happening in Egypt. A quarter to a third of the Arab world is in Egypt. And when Egypt feels revolutionary, the region feels revolutionary. When Egypt feels repressive, the region feels kind of repressive.

And I think that it’s clear that the new old regime in Egypt is doing everything possible using authoritarian measures to ensure that something like the January 25th uprising never happens again. From their perspective, and from the coalition of people who supported the coup d’état on July, 2013, the preceding few years were an aberration, and that they were intent on resetting the natural order of things. That was not only about dismantling the Muslim Brotherhood, but also dismantling those who were pushing for a more open and democratic society. And that’s Egypt.

And I think that, you know, if you look at the Gulf, which never really had a robust kind of civil society organization in the way in which we think about it, you have a kind of profoundly repressive environment in the region. One of the bright spots, however, is Tunisia. Although it’s not the success story that people have made it out to be, there is a thriving civil society sector in Tunisia. In fact, it’s the sector where there’s the most job opportunity for young Tunisians, is in the civil society sector. But overall, throughout the region, civil society organizations have found themselves under attack.

And it should be—I think it’s important to point out in a place like Egypt, that does feel repressive, there were many civil society organizations, including women’s organizations, that welcomed the end of the Morsi presidency and the return of the military establishing believing, erroneously, that they would reset some sort of political transition. So to some extent, oddly, unfortunately, civil society groups in Egypt in particular at first collaborated with the military and authoritarian forces.

BAER: One thing I want to say about—I think you made reference to them being profoundly inward looking in that part of the world. I think we recognize that that part of the world does not have a monopoly on that characteristic. (Laughter.)

AMOS: Mr. Murphy—Ambassador Murphy. (Chuckles.) Then I’ll come to you.

Q: Richard Murphy, Middle East Institute.

When your people conduct the surveys, they are in a specific Arab country and the same team may move between. But my question is, on your list of questions do you ask them to reflect on other countries other than their own? And do you have any conclusions about that?

BAER: We do. And I don’t have ready access to that. But we ask them to reflect across the board on those countries that they think have the most opportunity. And the Gulf States are the ones that have been the standouts, with the UAE—the Emirates at the top, and others as you sort of move down through it. Now, those are their attitudes, even if they’re not in those countries or have never been in those countries, of what they think the views are. So the GCC countries very much at the top, as a rule, and then others as you move downward toward the bottom in terms of economic opportunity.

Q: Ralph Buultjens, New York University. Two brief questions.

You focused entirely on the Arab world. Are you extrapolating for the whole Middle East from the Arab world? Have you made any attempts to look at Turkey and Iran? First question. Second question is this: You’re focusing on the attitude of the United States. Have you explored the attitude to other external powers, like Russia, Europe, and so on?

BAER: Yes. So first we—this is the Arab world. It’s specifically an Arab Youth Survey. Secondly—so some of those other parts of the world are not included. And to your point about other countries, we’ve spent time here talking about the United States. I’m going to find the other countries, if they’re in here, that they have commented upon. Why don’t we—here. So this is—this is a reference to the previous question. This is the country of which country—although it relates to yours as well—for the fifth year running, Saudi Arabia is seen as the top ally in the region, while Iran’s influence is on the rise. So who would you say is your country’s biggest ally? So I’ll just whip through this: Saudi Arabia, 31 percent; UAE, 28 percent; the U.S., 25 percent. So the U.S. is the third—

Q: But outside the region—

BAER: Yeah, I’m going to get there. Egypt, 15 percent; the U.K., 14 percent; Iran, 13 percent; Qatar, 12 percent; Kuwait, 12 percent; France, 10 percent; and Turkey, 10 percent. We don’t go into Russia. We don’t go into China in this situation. But you do get some of these other countries and you see where they are. But I mean, by pretty wide margins—I mean, the U.S. is way, way ahead of any other Western country.

AMOS: But the Saudis, who have only been at this leadership position for the last year, it’s already showing up in the survey among youth in the region, which is interesting.

BAER: Yes. But let me—there is some past data on that. So this year 31 percent for the Saudis. Number one, from 2012, has been the Saudis. Number two, last year, was the U.S. It’s fallen to number three this year. So it’s toggled back and forth with the UAE. Number three—Qatar was number three up until last year, when the UAE moved into that position. France was number five last year, and now it’s fallen down to, like, number eight.

AMOS: But your question is a broader, how do they see China, how do they see Russia? Do you have numbers on that?

BAER: Right. I don’t have that.


COOK: Can I just add? I don’t have anything on Russia and China, but I just want to add, because there’s other numbers that—these are Don’s numbers and I don’t want to horn in him—but there’s other numbers in the stuff that I have here.

BAER: No, all numbers are welcome. (Laughter.)

COOK: That I have here that come from the study, that I think gets to part of what Ralph is asking. And that’s which country would young Arabs like to live? And the top five are the UAE, the U.S., Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Canada. Which countries would you like your country to emulate? The UAE, number one; the U.S., number two; Germany, three; France, four; Britain, five. Interestingly, on both of those scores, just for my own kind of interest, all of this discussion after the Arab uprisings about a Turkish model, Turkey comes in pretty far behind these other countries. Only 7 percent want to live there, and only 8 percent want their countries to emulate. So it goes to show once again how far off some of the ideas that we have gotten into our heads about the uprisings, what young Arabs wanted after those very dramatic moments in 2011.

AMOS: And then—yes, right there.

Q: Hi. I’m Ethan Bronner with Bloomberg.

I’m curious if you asked any questions about not just their attitudes toward things, but their attitudes toward their ability to influence anything. And one of the things that you—when they say, for example, that their sense of the alliance—I can’t tell whether they’re referring to how their personally feel or what the alliance with their governments, from which they may feel, indeed, very alienated.

BAER: Right. Which we don’t know for sure. And that question is a very good one, about the extent to which they feel empowered to influence things. That’s not probed in this survey. And the question is a pretty direct one, you know, which is an ally—or the best ally of your country. And so whether or not it means their government or it means to the people of their country, we don’t know the difference.

AMOS: Those are important—that’s an important distinction.

BAER: It’s a very important distinction.

AMOS: Yeah. Wait for the mic.

Q: This is Amal from the Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund. And I am an Arab youth, so I feel I relate a lot of this data. (Laughter.) I can verify.

My question is actually related on whether you think perception of allies in the region is influenced by economic support. So I think in Egypt we did see Saudi and UAE giving a lot of economic support to Egypt recently. And do you think—you mentioned before that Washington should take more not just an external intervention and military aid, but also support—like, empowering the people through maybe job creation and other programs. Do you think there’s support to empower people economically to tackle the region’s problems from a—in a different way?

AMOS: Steven?

BAER: Steven?

COOK: Just on the second question, I think that this is something that we’ve been hearing for quite some time, about the importance of the United States and others in helping create economic opportunity. That’s one of the things that the Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund is intended to do. And I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle. The question is, is that the only thing that we should be doing? What lessons can we learn from the previous 10 years about what works and what doesn’t work? And I think that if it was up to me, I would say, look, I think we should invest in economic opportunity in the Arab world, because it’s actually something that we can do. When it comes to promoting democratic change or, you know, giving Arabs a sense of, you know, dignity and vision, I think we are ill-equipped to do that. Those are problems that need to be handled within the Arab world.

I think you make a great point, though, that, you know, this sense of alliance is that—and particularly when it comes to Egypt, that moment of crisis when Morsi’s tenure came to an end and Egypt was sort of—the perception that Egypt was teetering on the brink. And the United States was ambivalent, to say the least, that the Saudis and the Emirates came to—came to Egypt’s rescue. And that has an impact on the way in which—on the way in which Egyptians view their allies. But I’ll point out that there are a lot of Egyptians who really liked the Qataris during the Morsi interregnum. And then as that era came to an end, there was a lot of unhappiness with the Qataris. So I think these things can flip.

I think overall, however, those who can marshal the resources to help people realize their—you know, their economic dreams, their development, you know, the idea of a secure job, and so on and so forth, is something positive. And I think people will look positively on it. But the other piece of it, the other big piece of it that the United States has been obsessing about, I think we’re, as I said before, rather ill-equipped to handle.

AMOS: You right there.

Q: Hi. My name is Ghassan El-Eid. I’m a professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University.

I’d like to follow up on the question of the youth attitudes towards the United States. I think it’s very important to distinguish between government-to-government relationship versus people’s perception—people to people relationship. I was kind of surprised to see this favorable view of the United States in the region. I’m originally from Lebanon. I go to the Middle East all the time. I would say that government-to-government—if you look at Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates, for example, the relationship is close. But I would argue that people’s attitudes towards the United States is quite negative—is quite negative. The United States is perceived in the region as a country that empowers dictatorships, is seen as a country that’s an ally of Israel, that’s viewed, of course, in most of the Arab world as the enemy. So I want to point that out, that there’s a difference between government-to-government relationship and people to people relationship. Saudi Arabia is a case in point, of course. Fifteen out of 19 were from Saudi Arabia on 9/11, so.

BAER: So, well, all I can do is cite the numbers. And let me go back to numbers that Steven got to, which are very interesting. And one of the reasons why we asked the questions the way we did was to try to tease to the surface personal feelings rather than what you might assume would be some sort of a propaganda answer to the question. Which country in the world, if any, would you like to live in? Any country in the world, open-ended. UAE was number one, 22 percent. The U.S. was number two at 15 percent. And from there it skates downward through Germany, Saudi Arabia, Canada, France, U.K., Turkey, Malaysia, and Kuwait.

Now, last year it was exactly the same position: UAE number one, U.S. number two. 2014, it was exactly the same position. And I don’t have the actual percentage numbers. 2013, UAE has been number one across the board for the last four years, but in 2013 and 2012 France was number two and the U.S. was below that. So the U.S.’s position, at least in this ranking, has risen and sort of stayed steady for the last three years now, for whatever that’s worth. The other question which Steven made reference to was: Which country in the world, if any, would you most like your country to be like, all right? So 23 percent say the UAE, 19 percent say the U.S., and again then it staggers downward from there.

That has been the number one and number two ranking—UAE and U.S.—for the last three years, 2015, 2014. And again, the U.S., in 2013, was number three. France was number two. But in 2012, U.S. was not on the list. So I can’t tell you why or exactly what is happening, but there’s a definite trend line towards a preference for the United States, at least for purposes of these questions.

AMOS: Yes, we could be as compared to what?

COOK: Can I just—can I get on this?

AMOS: Yes.

BAER: As compared to living anywhere, right.

COOK: Yeah, I think we need to kind of draw these distinctions out a little bit sharper. And just anecdotally, anybody who’s been in the region will understand this. I’m quite used to being harangued about what the United States has done where, who they support, what we’ve enabled. But at the same time, going back to what I said to start, I think that Arab youth and Arabs more generally like the institutions of the United States, the way in which we live, our popular culture, our high culture, our low culture.

After these harangues, I then say, well, you know, where do you want to go to school? Oh, in the United States. You know, they want to talk about “Better Call Saul.” You know, a number of years ago, we were all—all of us in the Middle East were watching “Community.” We thought it was absolutely hilarious, because people in Qom, the Iranian holy city, were passing around the DVDs of Da Ali Gi Show, if all things. Now, Sacha Baron Cohen happens to be a British Jew, but that doesn’t matter. You know, that doesn’t—I don’t think—the idea is that there is something, as I said before there’s a kind of mystique and attraction to both high and low kind of things that they associate with the United States.

That doesn’t translate, I think, into broad support for American policy in the region. And that’s why I think Ethan’s question about ally is an important one. And then I picked up on one, I have notes here, about who do you regard as an enemy? And you know, I’m used to going to Egypt, the place I go most often, and really taking it between the eyes about American foreign policy. But nobody thinks the United States is an enemy, per se. But they’re unhappy with our conduct in the region, while overall wanting to emulate the way in which we live here at home. I think things that outrage Arabs are the gap between the way in which Americans live at home, or the way in which we would like to believe we live at home, and our conduct in the world. And I think that’s what the question is really getting at.

BAER: Well, let me get out on a limb here. I would speculate that what they dislike is what they perceive to be our government’s actions. But in fact, the affinity for our culture—popular, high, low, whatever—they perceive more to be their affinity for the people of this country, right? And this is where this election has some potential to be very destabilizing, because depending on what happens if a majority of the people in this country were to vote in a certain way it might send a very different signal about not what the government alone, but what the population in this country, is thinking. Now, of course, as we know, election results are always a lot more complicated than that, but nevertheless, that’s where I think there’s some real room for concern, one of the areas that there’s real room for concern right now.

AMOS: Ayman. Not quite an Arab youth. Aged out.

Q: Are you saying I’m not young anymore? (Laughter.)

AMOS: Aren’t you out of the 24-year old?

BAER: That’s a zinger here. (Laughter.)

AMOS: He’s older than 24.

Q: Ayman Mohyeldin with MSNBC.

I was curious to know if—you were talking about the issue of stability and democracy. And this is always something that’s always debated in the Arab world, between having the plurality of authoritarian regimes or if democracy opens the door to Islamist rulers so we must reject democracy. And I was curious to know if you had any data on, for example, voter participation in countries like Egypt and Tunisia when there was the perception, at least, of free and fair elections. So in my time in Egypt, at least through 2011, the first constitutional referendum, the first parliamentary election, and subsequently the first presidential election had a pretty substantial voter participation. I was wondering if you had any hard data on that for Tunisia, to at least indicate to people whether or not their voting was an indication of whether they preferred democracy over what they’re getting now, which is complete civil war in countries like Syria and authoritarian regimes, like in Egypt?

BAER: Yeah. Great question. We don’t have it here. And I don’t know those data. But that’s a really important question: Having exercised their democratic rights, do they feel as though they still have not actually had the impact and influence that they would expect to have? Have they become more cynical as a result of having exercised the right, but not having seen the outcomes? By the way, again, another one of those questions that you might turn back inward here and be asking similar questions. (Laughter.)

AMOS: We are just about out of time, but I’d like to ask, especially you, Don, if the reactions here tell you that there’s other ways to ask these questions, and some things that you need to know in number nine?

BAER: We’re always learning. And there’s no question that there’s a lot more—there’s a lot more rich, rich sort of data that we could be seeking. So, yeah, this is very helpful. And the only thing I would also say, though, is these are direct, face-to-face interviews. You can only get so many questions in to play. And I for one am interested, and this is only one person’s view, that we do track some of these things over time. Even though they may be imperfect measures, they are still measures of how attitudes are changing, and personal ones and not just, if you will, canned attitudes that you would expect to get.

AMOS: Thank you very much, Donald Baer and Steven Cook. And thank all of you.

BAER: Thank you. (Applause.)


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