Sunil John, Asda'a Burson Marsteller: The new global generation

A survey of attitudes of Arab and Western young people reveals key differences in their outlook.

Born as the Cold War was winding to a close and coming of age in a geopolitical landscape defined by the events of September 11 and its aftermath, today's young people are the first to be raised in a truly globalised environment. The rise of new technology, in particular, has broken down old barriers and fostered the flattening of cultures across the world.

The tastes of Western and Middle East youth are now frequently remarkably aligned. Today, young people in the Middle East and the West indulge in many similar activities, adopt similar technologies and engage in similar lifestyle habits. In both regions young people view many brands, such as Nokia, Sony, Toyota and Toshiba, with similar levels of warmth.

As part of our evidence-based app-roach to developing communications strategies, and to gain a clearer understanding of the attitudes of youth in the Middle East and compare them with those of their peers in the West, Asda'a Burson-Marsteller commissioned a survey of 1,800 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 in six Arab states and three Western countries.

Among the key findings of the survey is that young people in the West are strikingly pessimistic about the future. Just 34 per cent of Western youth think things in their country are heading in the right direction. In the Middle East, despite ongoing conflicts in Iraq and other regional challenges, 52 per cent of youth argue that their country is on the right track.

Nowhere is the contrast between Arab and Western youth more pronounced than when examining the importance of religious belief. Some 68 per cent of Middle Eastern youth say that religion defines them as a person, compared with just 16 per cent in the West.

Asked to whom they look up, 30 per cent of Arab youth cited government leaders, compared with just nine per cent of their Western peers. Likewise, while just five per cent of Western youth said they looked up to religious leaders, 31 per cent of Middle East youth claimed admiration for the same group. In the economic arena, 29 per cent of Arab youth look up to business leaders, a sentiment shared by only five per cent of Western youth.

Middle Eastern youth are therefore not just more conservative than their Western peers, they are also far more idealistic in their vision and optimistic about their future. Western youth, by comparison, come across as cynical beyond their years.

If the groups diverge on some fundamental issues, they are in complete agreement on at least one key determinant: both groups see their family and friends as among the most influential forces in their lives, ranking them as the people they most look up to.

Sixty-four per cent of both Arab and Western youth say that their family defines who they are as a person. Fifty-seven per cent of Western youth and 61 per cent of their Arab peers also agree that friends are among the key determinants in defining their identity.

Youth from the Middle East and West ultimately mirror one another as they cope with the eternal challenges of adolescence and struggle towards self- definition and adulthood. Both groups recognise that nothing matters more to them than their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and extended networks of family members and friends.

These insights contrast strikingly with the stereotypical Western media image of the Middle East and are a reminder of the importance of evidence-based communications. They should certainly be heeded by international companies seeking to communicate in the Middle East. We are probably not the only ones to have been surprised by the optimism of Arab youth.


- Which are the most respected media outlets?

Middle East Economic Digest and Middle East Economic Survey are both especially good. Arabian Business, Trends, Banker Middle East and Gulf Business are also worthy. Pan-Arab dailies Al Hayat and Asharq Alawsat make a significant impact among regional decision-makers. Al Jazeera has redefined broadcast journalism in the region and the MBC Group has a growing audience.

- Who is the in-house comms person to watch?

James Cordahi, who recently joined private equity firm Abraaj Capital from Reuters. He speaks English, French and Arabic: a real asset.

Sunil John is chief executive officer of Asda'a Burson-Marsteller.

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