What bubbles below the Gulf's oil giants

The World Cup provides a glimpse into the Gulf Arab states and their leaders’ race to stay ahead of restless youth.

Artists perform next to Ghanim Al Muftah, ambassador for the FIFA World Cup, during the opening ceremony of the Nov. 20 sporting event in Qatar.

The Arab states in the Gulf, which account for nearly half of the world’s oil supply, also hold the lowest combined rankings for democratic freedoms and rights. The two characteristics help explain why democracies face a balancing act to live up to their values while doing business with these vital sources of energy.

Last Friday, for example, U.S. President Joe Biden drew fire by affirming immunity for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite U.S. intelligence reports that link the de facto Saudi leader to the 2018 killing of a Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the House of Lords plans a debate on how the government might "address human rights abuses in the Gulf States.”

Though valid, these actions may overshadow an important shift already underway in the six states of the Gulf: an emerging generation of youth demanding economic opportunity, religious freedom, and social equality.

On Sunday night, during the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar, the rest of the world heard a powerful voice for such young people. “With tolerance and respect, we can live together under one big home,” said Ghanim Al Muftah, who at the age of 20 may already be his country’s most prominent public figure. A political science student born without legs, he has more than 7 million followers on TikTok, more than 3.3 million on Instagram, and a million more on YouTube. In a 2018 TED Talk, he measured individual worth by “love of life, strength, giving back, patience, and hope.” 

Mr. Al Muftah’s reach through social media underscores the interconnectedness of Arab youth. His message shows the sharp contrast between the aspirations of his generation and the overly restrictive rules they reject.

People under the age of 25 make up 60% of the population across the Arab world. One in 5 is unemployed, and young Arab women are twice as likely to be jobless than their male counterparts. Lack of economic opportunity for younger Arabs has been a long-standing problem, but there’s a new wrinkle. As the world moves toward a post-oil future, the basic social contract of Arab societies is changing. The age of the petrodollar welfare state is ending, giving way to a new age of entrepreneurial independence and individual liberty.

A Zogby poll of Arab youth in July found that two-thirds believe religious leaders should not interfere in politics, and 43% said they intend to start their own businesses. Significantly, 34% of startups have female founders, and as high as 57% of science, technology, and engineering graduates are women. In one important trend, as state scholarships for study in overseas universities have decreased in recent years, more young Arabs are funding their educations themselves.

The region’s regimes are paying attention. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has created a youth council to participate in government. Its youngest minister is 22.

“Only through critical self-reflection can Muslim societies truly address their political and socioeconomic problems,” wrote Ahmet T. Kuru, a political scientist at San Diego State University, in The New Arab last year. “Muslim societies need open, meritocratic, and competitive systems where political, religious, intellectual, and economic classes can operate autonomously.”

States often struggle to find the balance between their economic interests and moral values. But changes within Arab societies are showing that aspirations for equality, compassion, and liberty ultimately bend even the most hardened regimes.

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