As Arab leaders gathered to attend the annual Arab League summit this week in Jordan, festive banners welcoming top diplomats, presidents and kings from 21 other nations lined the roads from Queen Alia Airport to the luxury hotels on the Dead Sea.
But Jordanian software engineer Bara Hasania wasn’t feeling particularly hospitable. He and many other young Arabs say those leaders aren't doing enough to address their generation's concerns.
“My grandfather passed away in Kuwait last week and we had to choose just two members from our family to go to his funeral because of the huge amount of money we had to pay to get them an emergency visa,” said Hasania, a 23-year-old of mixed Jordanian and Palestinian heritage. “Millions of people who share the same culture, values and language are not allowed to travel in their own region without getting a visa. The leaders are united only under the roof of the Crowne Plaza resort.”
Young Arabs say the inability to move easily between their countries for study and work, lack of investment in education and their leaders’ refusal to establish more inclusive governments are just as important to them as the wars in Syria and Yemen or the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“I wish we could produce a video for the Arab League with a group of young men and women expressing their opinion regarding the summits they hold. They would find out that the youth do not trust them.”
It’s not that those under 35 don’t care about the security matters topping the summit agenda, which Arab heads of state are slated to discuss on Wednesday.
But their leaders’ failure to create a unified Arab economic zone, weak commitments to technological innovation and reluctance to democratize local politics have convinced Arab youth that their governments are deaf to their core concerns.
And it matters: According to United Nations statistics, young people are the fastest growing segment of the Arab population. Nearly 60 percent of Arabs are under 25.
“I wish we could produce a video for the Arab League with a group of young men and women expressing their opinion regarding the summits they hold,” said Abdullah al-Ahmad, a 27-year-old media specialist for Identity Center, an Amman-based civil society organization. “They would find out that the youth do not trust them.”
While al-Ahmed agreed with the anti-terrorism agenda drafted by Arab foreign ministers before the arrival of their respective heads of state, he warned that the stress on security over development and economic integration is a backward solution to the region’s core problems.
“Development needs to move out of the capital cities and start to include remote areas and smaller towns,” said al-Ahmed, who comes from the village of Sakhra, about 40 miles from Amman. “These are the areas that have become susceptible to extremist thought and young people are at risk of being recruited for terrorism.”
Those sentiments weren’t lost on officials.
"Arab countries need to create 60 million jobs in a decade to absorb newcomers into the labor market," said Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, the former Egyptian foreign minister who serves as the league’s secretary general, at a preparatory session on Monday. "Economic and social issues should take priority at this summit because the Arab citizen is economically insecure and his trust in the future is weak.”
At the same session, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi added that those issues were even more pressing for Arabs living in war zones and collapsing states.
"More than 12 million Arab children are being denied access to education in part because of conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya," Safadi said. "The Arab political system has failed to solve the crises and halt the collapse as the trust of Arab citizens in joint Arab institutions has eroded."
The league has made gestures toward embracing youth perspectives, but it's not clear whether leaders are listening.
Egyptian Mohammed Salah, a 25-year-old digital marketing specialist working in Amman, said he has friends who have been invited to attend summit sessions as observers. But he noted they wouldn’t be allowed to speak.
“I think the Jordanian government should get credit for making this gesture towards youth,” said Salah. “But it’s a very hard time in this region with so many wars and the decline in the price of oil is beginning to hurt opportunities even in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The oversized investment in military is costing us a generation in innovation and advancement."
According to the International Monetary Fund, Saudi Arabia’s youth unemployment is around 12 percent — the low end of unemployment in the Arab world. World Bank figures show youth unemployment is 28 percent in Jordan, which has become a particularly tough labor market because of the influx of Syrian refugees. In Egypt, which is struggling to reform its state-dominated economy, youth joblessness hovers at round 20 percent.
“The Arab League should ensure the transition of power to a younger generation and finalize a single Arab market for real. Otherwise they should consider dissolving themselves in light of their continuous failures.”
Outside of Jordan, Egyptian youth stand out as especially frustrated by the collapse of the Arab Spring, the demise of their revolution and the devolution of protests in Syria into civil war.
“The Arab League should ensure the transition of power to a younger generation and finalize a single Arab market for real,” said Mohammed Moussa, 27, the youth secretary for Egypt’s liberal Justice Party, who has been monitoring coverage of the summit on television. “Otherwise they should consider dissolving themselves in light of their continuous failures.”
Jacob Wirtschafter reported from Amman, Jordan.