A review of Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring, by Bessma Momani
Far removed from the bird’s-eye view of the Arab Middle East as a place of civil war, sectarian violence, religious extremism and economic stagnation, Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring is a tale of two stories: challenges and successes. In her latest book, Bessma Momani invites her readers to take a closer look at the socioeconomic changes that are taking place in the Arab world, and how these changes are forming a more vibrant, educated, vocal, internet-savvy Arab youth (between the ages of 15 and 24) that is striving for a better future.
Structured into four main chapters, the book starts with an analysis of the economic conditions in the Arab world and how they affect these young Arabs. It then analyses some prominent social issues such as corruption, democratization, freedom and social media and how they are perceived by younger generations. The third chapter tackles the question of Arab identity and religion and how social justice can be achieved—especially for minorities and women, all from a youthful perspective. The last chapter articulates the theme of “circularity,” stating that in a time of globalization and migration, Arab youth import ideas back home, as much as they export them, making it impossible to resist cultural changes.
Arab Dawn highlights the underlying causes of Arab youth’s disenchantment within their societies, which Momani believes were factors that led to the uprisings in many Arab countries. Indeed, the Arab Spring constitutes the major axis of the book, as almost all chapters relate to one demand chanted in Tahrir Square: bread, freedom and social justice. However, unlike other writers on the causes of the Arab Spring, Momani takes her analysis a step further, arguing that Arab youth are full of potential and will bring about positive change to the region.
One of the remarkable features of this book lies in its ability to challenge the most stubborn prejudices against Arab youth with a plethora of statistical evidence. Although the book is brief, it is rich with details, interviews and anecdotes from the ground—making it harder to dismiss the author’s argument as naive or unrealistic. Also, unlike many books written from western perspectives, painted with an orientalist brush by scholars who do not really know the cultural nuances of the Arab world, this work does not lack authenticity since it is written by a scholar who has deep ties to the region and reflects the voices of youth on the ground through interviews conducted in different Arab countries.
Another celebrated feature of this book is its focus on the micro level of analysis. Scholars of Middle East politics often tend to look at Arab politics from an international affairs or foreign policy perspective (focusing on issues such as terrorism, war and ethnic conflicts) without really delving deeper into what is happening with the majority of Arabs who are not making the headlines. This fresh approach is needed to bridge this important gap in the academic levels of analysis.
That said, I am still not as optimistic about the immediate future of the Arab world as Momani seems to be. One of the statistics that the book highlights, for instance, is that in the United Arab Emirates 77 percent of adult women are university graduates, a number higher even than that of Canada. Although we should applaud this high percentage, we should also be concerned by the number of youth graduating from secondary school, as well as by the quality of the education they are receiving both at the secondary and post-secondary levels. When so many educated Arab youth are either unemployed or significantly underemployed, I believe more in-depth studies are needed to examine the quality of their education. Based on statistics in the book, Arab youth are obviously more educated than their predecessors, but how does that translate into social and political realities?
Another issue that makes me less optimistic about the (near) future of the Arab Middle East is related to the regional and national levels of analysis, which are the particular areas of my own research. Momani clearly acknowledges the security challenges facing a divided region, but she still reaches an optimistic view about the future based on her findings about Arab youth. However, with the undeniable rise of extremism and unrest in the region, many countries in the Arab world, with the exception of the Gulf region, are facing increasing poverty and illiteracy. Iraq, Syria, Libya and Lebanon are riddled with civil conflicts, leaving a huge number of refugees and displaced children illiterate. How do these future youth fit into the picture? If this problem can be successfully tackled, I am much more optimistic about the immediate future of the youth of the Gulf region, but far less optimistic about the “demographic dividend” that countries facing civil wars can contribute—which will need at least two generations to get over the destructive effects of war. I agree with Momani that the evidence indicates the future will be better, but I think a distinction needs to be made between Gulf and non-Gulf youth and also near and far future.
Although Arab Dawn was published in 2015, the book was mainly researched before the 2014 change in government in Egypt. So it does not touch upon the failure of Egyptian youth to establish a political place for themselves after the uprising. It also does not include statistics after 2013 (as presented in the appendix). This leaves Momani room for a new book, or at least a revised edition, to address these issues and to follow up with youth in places where revolutions took place (Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia), in order to examine their sentiments in the post–Arab Spring era. Future editions could also benefit from bolstering the identity chapter with more structured interviews, mass surveys and statistical analysis.
Although Momani declares that “this book is not a classic academic study,” I consider Arab Dawn a highly welcome addition to a level of analysis missing in academic books dealing with the Arab world. As a professor of Middle East and Arab politics, I will recommend it to my students who are interested in the causes of the Arab uprising, Middle Eastern political economy and the perspective of Arab youth in general.