Now is the time to tap the entrepreneurial zeal of Arab youth

By Sunil John

In 2008, when we launched the first edition of the annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, two themes dominated the discussion from Dubai to Davos: The Middle East’s ‘youth bulge’ and its ‘untapped youth dividend’.

Fifteen years later, and despite the Arab world population becoming younger, realising this so-called ‘youth dividend’ still appears a distant prospect.

Youth unemployment in the Middle East & North Africa has worsened, and at 26 per cent, is higher than the world average by around 13 per cent.

According to the World Bank, one in three young people (32 per cent) aged 15 to 24 are neither employed nor in education or training, and the United Nations reports that the region must create some 33.3 million jobs by 2030 to absorb the vast number of young people entering the workforce.

Without question, this is a daunting task for governments. The challenge is further exacerbated by the declining confidence of Arab youth – particularly those in North Africa and the Levant countries – in the ability of their lawmakers to solve their most pressing concerns, notably, unemployment and rising living costs.

However, the old order is starting to change. Instead of looking to others for support in an increasingly uncertain world, today’s generation of Arab youth are learning to rely on themselves. And while this is, in many ways, evidence of the failure of regional governments to provide a secure future for the next generation, it is also a heartening sign of the determination of Arab youth to chart their own course.

According to the findings of the 15th ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, nearly half of young Arab men and women across the region plan to start their own business in the next five years. GCC youth appear to have the most entrepreneurial drive (53 per cent), followed by their peers in Levant (39 per cent) and North Africa (37 per cent).

 This is unsurprising, considering the sums GCC governments have invested in startups and incubator initiatives, from Hub 71 in Abu Dhabi to the US$100 million Venture Capital Fund for Startups announced by Dubai. In Saudi Arabia, the number of small businesses, many of them women- and youth-led, has more than doubled to 1 million, since the launch of the Saudi Vision 2030 programme in 2016.

Outside the GCC, the will to start a business may be there, but the way is still unclear for many. About three-quarters of Arab youth in North Africa (73%) and Levant (79%) say it is difficult for young people in their country to start a business, compared with 42 per cent of GCC youth who say so.

Young entrepreneurs require a hand up rather than a handout to make their way in the world – specifically, less red tape, more vocational training, and more affordable (and accessible) finance. Our research also found that Arab youth most want to start their business in technology, e-commerce, and the creative industry.

Running alongside this rising trend in entrepreneurialism is the increasing desire of Arab youth to pursue a career in the private sector rather than government. While nearly half of the participants in our 2019 study said they would rather work in the public sector, less than a third (30 per cent) in this year’s survey say they prefer a government job. A full 33 per cent of Arab youth want a business career instead, a 13 per cent jump since 2022.

These findings are a call to action for both government and the private sector. Governments must introduce the necessary regulatory frameworks and invest in the infrastructure required for Arab youth’s entrepreneurial ambitions to thrive. Businesses must provide better access to the workplace for young school-leavers and college graduates, and the right career development pathways for the region’s rapidly evolving Arab national workforce.

Arab youth are increasingly ready to go it alone, and for this, they deserve support as well as praise. Governments and businesses must play their part to ensure their potential is fulfilled.


Published in Entrepreneur Middle East. Read it here.

Arab youth will be the first to live with a new multipolar reality

Read the commentary on the findings of the 15th annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey under the emerging theme, ‘My Global Citizenship’ by Faisal Al Yafai, partner at Hildebrand Nord. 

Living in a multipolar world will come about – as Ernest Hemingway said about going bankrupt – gradually, and then suddenly. The latest ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey shows clearly that the Arab world is living through the “gradually” part of the process.

This shifting reality is already apparent, but it takes an effort to detect it as a trend. One of the outcomes of a long-established survey like the Arab Youth Survey is that, over time, trends that weren’t immediately obvious become clearer through the data.

This year, one of the major findings is just how embedded a new, global multipolarity is. Looking at which countries Arab youth considered allies and which enemies throws up some intriguing answers.

At the top, more an ally than any other country outside the region, is Turkey, followed swiftly by China. The US, the UK and France are trending downwards. In microcosm, this shift reflects what is happening across the world, as the “rest” catch up with the “West”. As a region that straddles three of the major centres of the world, the Middle East was one of the first to feel its effects. As it develops, the Arab world, and of course Arab youth, will be the first to live with the reality of a multipolar world.

In some ways it is already becoming a reality – witness the China-brokered deal earlier this year to restore Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran.

But it’s becoming a reality in other ways as well. While certainly true that the politics of Turkey’s involvement in the region, as well as China’s, play a role in the perception of Arab youth, it’s also the case that culture matters too. The two often go hand in hand. Turkey’s cultural exports in film, television and music are avidly consumed by young Arabs. As for China, the country is becoming a vital source of tourists. Saudi Arabia, for example, which has a young population, plans to bring in more than 4 million Chinese tourists by the end of this decade. Such links change the perception of the country.

A more complicated geopolitical landscape

This multipolarity will not look like the past, when the twin poles of the US and the Soviet Union existed during the Cold War. Instead, it will be more complicated.

Like most of the world, the Middle East lives with the extraordinary military dominance of the United States. Little wonder that the survey found America to be the country with the most influence over the region, by a wide margin.

That this influence is broadly considered negative is shown in a follow-up question, which found that a majority of Arab youth want the US to disengage from the region. (That belief was tempered in the GCC, with only a slim majority, 53%, wanting US disengagement.)

Yet, as always, the picture is more complicated. Look at two of the survey’s findings.

First, asked to name which country young Arabs would most like to live in or have their countries emulate, a clear majority chose the UAE. (No surprise there: young Arabs have said they admire the country ever since the ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey introduced the question in 2012.) But the second most popular country this year was the United States.

The reasons why the UAE topped the list offers indications as to why the US is respected. Among the top associations were safety, a growing economy and ease of doing business – all associations that could also apply to the United States. More evidence can be found in the question about which country will be a stronger ally. Here, there was a tilt towards the US, but only just.

Almost exactly the same percentage thought the US would be a stronger ally than Russia (66%) as thought the US would be a stronger ally than China (62%). Put another way, there was a preference for the US, but not much for Russia or China.

This demonstrates the messiness of multipolarity. Arab youth admire many things about the US, but also dislike its excessive involvement in the region. But it also highlights how countries that seek to rival the US in some spheres aren’t interested in doing so in others. Neither China nor Russia wishes to supplant the US from the Middle East – yet in some spheres, they are rivals. An emerging multipolar world will be much harder to understand, and perhaps navigate.

Allies and adversaries in focus

In general, the allies and adversaries are mirror images of each other, with the country considered mostly an ally (Turkey) also ranking least as an adversary, and the country considered mostly an adversary (Israel) also ranking the least as an ally. But for two countries this isn’t true, India and Pakistan, reflecting the more nuanced position these two Asian countries find themselves in vis a vis Arab youth – and perhaps also reflecting the long, deep and complex ties these two countries have with the Gulf States, with Iraq and with other countries.

If Arab youth still see other Arab countries as allies – and the strongest allies named by Arab nations were always other Arab nations – then the non-Arab countries of the Middle East occupy a more nuanced position. Of the three main non-Arab countries in the Middle East – Turkey, Iran and Israel – Turkey has the strongest position.

Iran and Israel, by contrast but not unexpectedly, are viewed in less flattering terms by Arab youth. In only three Arab countries is there more than 50% support for normalisation with Israel – Egypt, Morocco and the UAE – and in the majority of countries there is far less.

On Iran, a majority of Arab youth in every region believe there will be military conflict between Iran, Israel and the West. That the highest figure is in the Levant, where this proxy war is already playing out, shouldn’t be a surprise. But the fact that North Africa, which is hardly a traditional battleground for Iranian-Israeli tensions, should score so highly is a surprise.

An emerging global citizenship

What will be the consequences of this shift to multipolarity, especially as it pertains to young Arabs? Some we’ve already touched on: an expanding cultural diet and political connections, which will no doubt lead to shifting work opportunities. The number of young Arabs learning Mandarin and taking jobs in Shanghai will certainly expand. I also expect a similar expansion of the number of Arabs learning Turkish – leading, no doubt, to thundering newspaper columns about “Ottoman” influence. In time, these changes will also shift the politics of the region, as the cultural influence stretches into political alignments.

But the major shift will be one of mindset. A world in which young Arabs consider countries beyond the Middle East and the West allies will also shift how they think of themselves. A new, more global citizenship will not emerge overnight. But the shoots of it are already apparent in how young Arabs view this emerging world. How they navigate it will be one of the most exciting aspects to observe.


Faisal Al Yafai is a partner at Hildebrand Nord, International Editor at New Lines Magazine in Washington, DC, and a playwright. He has worked as a journalist in several Middle Eastern countries and was previously an investigative journalist for The Guardian in London and a documentary journalist for the BBC. He has reported from across the Middle East, from Eastern Europe and Africa.



Giving Arab youth a voice for the past 15 years

By Sunil John

In November 2008, when ASDA’A BCW launched its first annual Arab Youth Survey, the world was living through a period of dramatic change. President Barack Obama was about to start his first term and the mood was one of hope after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But just as he was about to take office, the global financial crisis struck, and its aftershocks soon reverberated around the world, from Wall Street to Main Street, and on to the Arab Street.

In the decade before the downturn, the Arabian Gulf nations had enjoyed an economic boom. The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was synonymous with these heady days, labelled by some Western observers as the ‘City on the Hill’ and a ‘Beacon of Hope’ in a region more readily associated with conflict and civil unrest.

In other Middle Eastern countries, however, long-standing enmities had worsened. The Palestinian-Israeli crisis had deepened. Iraq had been battered by a wave of insurgent attacks. Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen were restive.

The Arab youth dividend at risk

Amidst a rising tide of public dissatisfaction, populist movements were gaining ground, in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries, although they were largely ignored, or unseen, by most policymakers and the international media.

However, the risk of the Middle East losing its precious ‘youth dividend’ was clearly visible to us at ASDA’A BCW, the region’s leading communications consultancy.

While UN data pointed to double-digit youth unemployment rates, reliable attitudinal research was lacking. The need to create 100 million jobs was a much-debated topic on the conference circuit, but youth themselves were rarely part of the conversation.

That was when we saw the critical need for a survey that attempted to understand the hearts and minds of Arab youth, the Middle East’s largest demographic. Around 60% of the Arab world’s population, some 200 million young men and women, are below the age of 30. In 2008, we launched the annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey to give them a voice.

Our rationale was clear: accurate insights lead to carefully considered policies and social and economic conditions in which youth can thrive.

Predicting the Arab Spring

The first ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey on the hopes, concerns and aspirations of young men and women aged 18 to 24 was well received. However, the real significance of our research would become apparent a year later, when we announced that the top priority of Arab youth was living in a democratic country. They also demanded better access to quality education, a fair wage, and safer communities.

The following December, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked the overthrow of the Tunisian government and the onset of regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The Arab Spring changed the Arab world forever, and the rest of the world along with it.

The perception of our annual study was also transformed. Having accurately identified the factors behind the most significant upheaval in the Middle East for a generation, the annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey became a respected bellwether of Arab youth opinion.

Mapping evolving priorities

Each year, our study throws a spotlight on the outlook of the Arab world’s largest demographic, their shifting mindset, and evolving priorities. In 2012, fair pay and home ownership were deemed more important than living in a democracy. In 2013, a new spirit of optimism had taken hold, with the majority of those surveyed convinced their best days lay ahead.

In 2014, we found that confidence in government had risen. Two years later, however, less than half of Arab youth said they trusted their national government to manage surging terrorism and the threat of ISIS (Daesh).

In 2017, our study observed waning youth optimism and a growing divergence in the views of youth in the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and those in the conflict-stricken countries of North Africa and the Levant.

The consensus in 2018 was that the Arab world was drifting off course. Once again, young men and women across the region were demanding urgent action on jobs, education, corruption, and Islamic extremism. The call for reform grew even louder in 2019, with even religious institutions coming in for criticism.

In 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, confidence was arguably at its lowest ebb, with nearly half of Arab youth surveyed saying they had considered emigrating from their country. There were also heightened fears that a prolonged shut-down would lead to further political unrest, as our one-off Pulse Survey at the peak of the crisis indicated.

Predictably, in 2021, with the danger of COVID-19 starting to recede, our survey documented the renewed confidence of Arab youth. The following year, the yearning of Arab youth for stability – to chart a new course after a decade of uncertainty and upheaval – was unmistakable. In fact, it was even stronger than the desire of Arab youth for democratic change, a striking reversal in attitudes since 2009.

The rise of Gen Z

Significantly, all our sample in this year’s Arab Youth Survey belong to the post-Millennial generation born after 1997, also known as Generation Z. They are coming to terms with the events of the past 15 years: the civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, the rise and fall of ISIS (Daesh), the COVID-19 pandemic, near all-time high unemployment, accelerating digitalisation, and the existential threat of climate change.

What shines through is the sense that today’s generation of Arab youth are Living a New Reality – the overarching theme of this year’s survey – where geopolitical allegiances are realigning, where attitudes to the region’s long-standing conflicts are diverging, and where perspectives on what constitute a ‘model nation’ are becoming more nuanced.

For our 15th annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, we have decided to release the findings in stages under separate themes: My Global Citizenship, My Politics, My Livelihood, My Identity, My Aspirations, and My Lifestyle. This is because, as many of you told us, the volume of data we collect each year is now simply too large to be published in a single launch.

Accordingly, we examine the findings under the first of our six themes, ‘My Global Citizenship.’

As I reflect on the first 15 years of the ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, it is astonishing to me that we have conducted nearly 45,000 face-to-face interviews across the Arab world to date, and now reach 18 Arab states. This is an incredible source of knowledge and data, which we fund entirely ourselves and make freely available to all.

We will continue to provide Arab youth a voice through our survey. As the region charts a course toward a more peaceful and sustainable future for the region and the world, it is incumbent upon us all to listen to them.


Building the soft power of Saudi Arabia

By Sunil John

This year, the prestigious Cannes Film Festival opened with a film backed by Saudi Arabia. Jeanne du Barry, the French biographical drama starring Johnny Depp about the rise of the daughter of an impoverished seamstress through the Court of Louis XV, might seem an unconventional choice for a country as conservative as Saudi Arabia, but it is further evidence of the Kingdom’s growing soft power.

Saudi Arabia will again be the talk of Tinseltown later this month, when the Gerard Butler-starrer Kandahar, shot in the picturesque AlUla region, opens in cinemas.

Saudi Arabia’s foray into film is the latest chapter in a national economic narrative that has ventured into sectors as diverse as tourism, music, the arts, sports, clean energy, sustainable cities, and artificial intelligence. The perception of Saudi Arabia as an oil-dependent economy has become decidedly old-fashioned.

The 14th annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, the largest of its kind study of the region’s largest demographic, revealed that young people in Saudi Arabia are increasingly optimistic about their future. Photo courtesy: MiSKGlobalForum


Of course, oil revenues, which topped US$326 billion in 2022, the most since 2012, have supercharged the economic diversification and reform outlined in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy. One of 19 member countries of the so-called Trillion-dollar club, Saudi Arabia is on track to double the size of its economy by the end of the decade.

Having operated in the Kingdom for over two decades, ASDA’A BCW has advised many of Saudi Arabia’s leading entities, including those of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. As a catalyst of Saudi Arabia’s diversification drive, PIF has pledged to increase the share of international assets in its portfolio from 10 per cent today, to 50 per cent by 2030.

The focus on youth is unmistakably evident in all of the government’s actions – the opening up of the economy, the innovative music concerts, the number of new entertainment attractions and cinemas, and, of course, the focus on upskilling and creating jobs for young people.

The recent US$4.9 billion acquisition of California-based gaming leader Scopely Inc by PIF-backed Savvy Games Group, further illustrates how closely Saudi Arabia’s investment strategy is tracking the behaviours and consumption habits of the post-Millennial generation.

This was the third-largest equity investment in a foreign company by a Saudi-based investor, surpassing PIF’s US$3.6 billion investment in Uber Technologies in 2016, another disruptive tech company leading the new shared-services economy.

Such transactions also reflect the growing entrepreneurial spirit of Saudi investors, who have now emerged as one of the world’s most important, and prolific, sources of venture capital.

An estimated 70 per cent of the private equity deals by Saudi-based investors last year involved venture capital, underscoring both the ambition and the risk appetite of Saudi Arabia’s leadership today.

The Kingdom’s transformation from an oil & gas swing producer into an economic powerhouse is clear, and, crucially, it is one that young Saudis endorse.

The 14th annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, the largest of its kind study of the region’s largest demographic, revealed that young people in Saudi Arabia are increasingly optimistic about their future. They trust their leadership to do the right thing. An astonishing 98% of young Saudi men and women say that their voice matters, and that the government has the right policies in place to address their concerns on core issues such as education, job creation and economic growth.

Optimism about Vision 2030 among Saudi youth has increased year on year. Almost all the respondents (99%) to last year’s survey said they were confident the road map would secure a stronger economy. And 97 per cent said the country was going in the right direction, while nine in 10 said they believed they would have a better life than their parents.

The Saudi government’s recent private sector reforms also received an enthusiastic thumbs up from young Saudis, with 96 per cent saying they that approved measures encouraging more private sector involvement in the economy. According to the research, 93 per cent said they strongly supported or somewhat supported reforms encouraging Saudi citizens to play a bigger role in business.

At ASDA’A BCW, we have always believed that to understand the Arab world, we must first understand the hearts and minds of its largest demographic, its youth. Our survey’s findings show that Saudi youth fully support their country’s reform agenda and are optimistic about their future.

Such enthusiasm for change in a country traditionally viewed as modest and inward-looking illustrates the value of writing a new communications playbook for Saudi Arabia. This will fairly and accurately present its people to the world today and give them the starring role they clearly deserve.

Sunil John is the President – MENA of BCW and founder of ASDA’A BCW

Published in June 2023 in Campaign Middle East

Listening to Arab Youth

More young Arabs express their desire to start a business and work for themselves (picture used for illustrative purpose only)

By Dr. Jihad Azour

Optimism can be difficult to muster at a time of heightened uncertainty and global turmoil. The 2022 ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, conducted only a few months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, reflected a darkening economic outlook. Rapidly rising commodity prices and supply-chain disruptions were fueling inflation worldwide, and higher food prices were straining low-income households and undermining food security in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Not much has changed in the year since. Despite some easing since the end of 2022, price pressures remain stubbornly high; this year, inflation is expected to average around 15% in the Arab world. Many of the region’s central banks continued tightening monetary policy to prevent inflation expectations from de-anchoring. Coupled with turbulence in global financial markets and increased policy uncertainty, this could dampen economic activity for the foreseeable future.

Given this context, it is no surprise that rising living costs and unemployment were the most pressing concerns for young Arabs. The 2022 survey covered five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia), and the Levant (Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories, Syria, and Yemen), where stark disparities in income and wealth remain.

This year, 41% of respondents reported struggling to pay their expenses in full, up from 37% in 2021. This share is much higher in the Levant, where 63% of the young people surveyed were unable to meet their basic financial obligations.

Moreover, this year’s survey highlighted how young Arabs’ concerns about education and unemployment dimmed their hopes for the future. About 83% of respondents were worried about the quality of education in their country. And, while only 15% of the youth population in GCC countries said it would be difficult to find a job, that share was 55% in North Africa and 73% in the Levant.

The most encouraging finding was growing interest in entrepreneurship. More young Arabs expressed the desire to start a business and work for themselves, while the traditional allure of government jobs appears to be waning (except, perhaps, in the GCC countries). This shift will help drive economic dynamism and boost growth, which could translate into more opportunities for future generations.

In response to these findings, policymakers should focus on addressing the cost-of-living crisis and generating more and better employment opportunities. Shielding households from rising prices will require targeted measures, such as temporary cash transfers to the most vulnerable segments of the population, though governments should resist the temptation to reintroduce or expand subsidies and trade restrictions. Meanwhile, survey responses point to a two-pronged approach to tackling the lack of jobs: fighting corruption and nepotism and improving the education system. Both require policymakers to implement long-term reforms.

While it is important to help young people gain skills that are attractive to current and future employers, governments should also provide entrepreneurial support for young Arabs hoping to start and grow their own business. Beyond offering more training, this means removing barriers to market entry, increasing transparency in the provision of public goods and services, and broadening access to credit.

The International Monetary Fund recently highlighted the importance of stepping up digitalization and investing in new technologies in the MENA region. This would help young men and women take full advantage of the new job opportunities associated with remote work, online learning, digital finance, and e-commerce. At the same time, digitalization will improve access to and delivery of social protection services.

Finally, the survey results underscore the threat posed by climate change. The Arab world relies heavily on food imports, making supplies and prices vulnerable to severe weather events in other parts of the world. Policymakers must take decisive measures to ensure food security, such as investing in climate-resilient infrastructure, using water more efficiently, and improving the management of food stocks and supply chains at the national level. Greater investment in clean-energy technologies could also deliver comparative advantages (by reducing the emissions produced by industrial exports), accelerate the diversification of the region’s economies, and create jobs.

The IMF is committed to supporting the MENA region through financing, having already allocated $53.8 billion to Arab countries since the start of the pandemic [link?], together with assistance for capacity development and policy advice. The Fund is also enhancing its lending toolkit to help countries better cope with new crises and challenges.

To help address the urgent food crisis facing its most vulnerable members, the IMF has introduced a one-year lending window, which, as of April 2023, has benefited six countries with a total of $1.9 billion. That scheme is complemented by the IMF’s new resilience and sustainability trust, which supports low-income and middle-income countries in addressing long-term challenges, including climate change and future pandemics.

While the most recent survey of young Arabs ultimately presents a positive picture, with many convinced that their best days lie ahead, it also suggest an ever-growing battle between optimism and pessimism, particularly when it comes to the economy. One hopes that with the support of international organizations like the IMF, the next survey will show a renewed sense of confidence, inspired by improved economic conditions. Hope for a better future must continue to be nurtured, even – or especially – in turbulent times.

Dr. Jihad Azour, a former Lebanese finance minister, is the Director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia Department.

Read the Project Syndicate column here

A strong year for PR in MENA

At Campaign Middle East’s first Agency of the Year awards, ASDA’A BCW won two awards for Regional Agency of the Year – UAE and PR/ Communications Agency of the Year.  In an interview with Campaign’s Jalaja Ramanunni , Sunil John, President – MENA of BCW and Founder of ASDA’A BCW, says why 2023 will be a strong year for PR in the MENA region. 

ASDA’A was founded in 2000 as an independent agency by Sunil John who continues to lead in the agency’s 22nd year. John spoke to us about a positive 2023 for the Middle East and North African markets.

Tell us about your journey to the award.

When Campaign had its first award in 2007, we were the PR agency that won PR agency of the year. Now Campaign has come back with its inaugural award in 2022 – and here we are again. It has been a fabulous journey for us from 2007 to 2022. We have been in the game for a long time. We launched ourselves in 2000 and it has been 22 years. We are a PR agency that founded a lot of what you see in the PR sector. We are happy that we are recognized for everything we did over 22 years.

How will the award help your agency to navigate forward in the industry?

Great work needs great recognition and to get it from Campaign Middle East awards is a fabulous way to be recognized for great work. This will be a great impetus for the teams inside. Awards are a great motivational force for agencies to go to the next level. I want to thank Campaign Middle East for recognising ASDA’A BCW.

Why should other agencies enter these awards?

Agencies are people-businesses and people need recognition. Awards are a way to recognise great work and the contribution of people. Other agencies should enter because these awards as it is a great motivational force. It can transform agencies and to miss that would be a mistake. To enter awards, show the best work that you’ve got and to be recognised from great juries as well is something every agency must do for the next year.

What does 2023 look like?

2023 is going to be a difficult year across the world with one exception, and that’s the Middle East and North African markets. This is a market with huge growth potential, obviously for links with higher oil prices and governments being in a much stronger position. We are looking at a strong 2023 despite the issues around the world. This is a time to invest in people and innovation and to consider integrated creative offers that can satisfy client needs. I am being very positive about 2023.

Campaign Middle East celebrated the best minds in advertising, marketing and media at the Agency of the Year Middle East awards 2022. View all the winners here.

Youthful optimism can help overcome our challenges

By Sunil John

One of the insights from our 14th annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey this year was that many young Arabs see footballers as their role models. When polled between May and June, Arab youth cited Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah and Saudi Arabian legend Majed Abdullah as two of the public figures they admired the most.

Fast forward to December, with Morocco achieving a historic fourth place in the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar, and Saudi Arabia beating the eventual winners, Argentina, in an earlier qualifying match, it is safe to say that even more young Arab men and women will be citing footballers as their role models in the next edition of our research.

The story of the football prowess of North African and Middle Eastern nations at this year’s tournament was a welcome change from the usual news coverage of the region.

Ironically, it revealed something our annual study has consistently shown – a confident, ambitious population more than capable of holding their own when given a level playing field.

Today, Arab youth seek stability and opportunities for progress as eagerly as they do greater civil liberties. And despite seemingly impossible odds at times, most believe they will have a better life than their parents.

It is apposite to describe the joy of sport as a distraction, particularly in the Arab world. Arab youth may well be optimistic and football mad, but they are hardly oblivious to the challenges confronting them.

Young Arabs at a crossroads

In fact, according to our 2022 research, many see themselves at a crossroads. They believe their best days lie ahead, but most say their country’s economy is headed in the wrong direction.

An increasing proportion are looking forward to starting their own business, but inflation and access to quality education are concerns across the board.

In this year’s poll more than a third (41 percent) said they were struggling to meet their basic expenses (rising to 63 percent in the Levant), and more than half (53 percent) said they receive financial support from their family.

Nearly half (49 percent) of all young Arabs said they now believe it will be difficult to find a job, especially in the Levant, where the figure rose to nearly three-quarters (73 percent).

The silver lining

Yet there is a silver lining. While most economies around the world are preparing for recession, those in the Middle East are expected to grow by 3.5 percent in 2023, according to the World Bank.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the Arabian Gulf states will generate additional revenues of $1.3 trillion over the next four years.

This windfall will help the region’s wealthiest economies sustain large-scale investment in diversification and decarbonisation, with positive knock-on effects on neighbouring countries.

With the UAE hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop28) in 2023 and Saudi Arabia pursuing the Middle East Green Initiative, opportunities in the region’s cleantech sector will enjoy an unprecedented focus.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have each pledged to achieve net-zero emissions. This will stimulate opportunities in all areas of the economy as governments and the private sector strive to reduce their environmental impact.

Accordingly, demonstrating a clear sustainability vision, backed by robust environmental, social and governance (ESG) frameworks will increasingly become non-negotiable.

The current gap in this regard is both a concern and an opportunity for the consulting sector. According to our research, about two-thirds (59 percent) of businesses in Saudi Arabia and the UAE say they do not have an ESG framework in place.

Half of those who say they do also admit they do not fully understand it. In May this year ASDA’A BCW launched the dedicated advisory OnePoint5 to help bridge this worrying gap between action and words.

The optimism of Arab youth, as documented by the ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, and displayed for all to see, is a resource we must rapidly put to work to overcome the Arab world’s well-documented challenges.

As communicators, we must help governments and businesses to articulate strategies that are sensitive to this new reality. We must shift from reactive to proactive counselling, offering creative, digital and integrated solutions.

Originally published in AGBI

A year when the Arab world will take centre stage

By Sunil John

It is both a sign of the times and a glimpse into the future when a 166-year-old Western financial institution turns to Saudi Arabia for bail-out funding.

Saudi National Bank’s $1.5 billion investment to acquire a 9.9 percent stake in the global investment bank and financial services company Credit Suisse Group was no ordinary financial rescue.

It was a powerful statement on Saudi Arabia’s strategic ambitions and the enviable position of the Arabian Gulf as one of the few bright spots in a decidedly wintry global economy, worsened by the prolonged conflict in Ukraine.

And this was despite Ammar A. Alkhudairy, Saudi National Bank’s Chairman, describing the investment – a fraction over 2 percent of its total investment portfolio of $68.7 billion – as “barely worth a press release”.

GCC economies a rare bright spot Saudi Arabia’s shrewd decision to strengthen its investment banking operations promises further financial firepower to deliver on its domestic economic transformation plans. One must add to this, of course, a share of the $1.4 trillion in extra oil & gas revenues that the IMF estimates will flow into the GCC countries over the next five years. These will further swell the coffers of the region’s sovereign wealth funds, which already account for 40 percent of the $5.5 trillion in assets held by SWFs globally.

While global financial markets witnessed an extended period of volatility, or ‘perma-crisis’ (the word of the year according to the Collins English Dictionary) during 2022, GCC fund managers have been in over-drive.

Stock exchanges in the UAE and Saudi Arabia recorded over $22.6 billion in new listings, equal to more than half the value of all the listings across the bourses of Europe, the Middle East and Africa combined.

In the first 10 months of 2022, Gulf sovereign investors more than doubled their investments in the US and Europe, from $20.9 billion to $48 billion. Six of the world’s top 10 active sovereign investors during this period came from the Arabian Gulf, each participating in deals exceeding $1 billion.

So, it is easy to see why the GCC countries will strengthen their economic powerhouse status over the next decade. This augurs well for their domestic populations, particularly the youth, and for trade and investment with neighbouring countries.

Arab countries taking centre stage One outcome of all this financial muscle has been the ability to host world-class events. The region has staged two in as many years. The pandemic-delayed Expo 2020 in Dubai, which received no fewer than 25 million visitations despite the unprecedented restrictions on social interaction and travel, and the FIFA World Cup in 2022 in Qatar, universally lauded as one of the best tournaments in the event’s storied history.

While not without controversy, the year’s World Cup saw Qatar confidently step forward onto the world’s biggest stage of all, successfully organizing an event that few thought possible 12 years ago when they won the bid. The presentation of a bisht, the traditional men’s cloak popular throughout the Arab world, to Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain Lionel Messi left an indelible mark on World Cup history. No small matter that Qatar spent a whopping $300 billion in creating world-class infrastructure to stage the event.

A new chapter has been added to the story of the region. While stereotypical opinions in some quarters have not necessarily been overcome, they most certainly have been challenged. A dialogue is now underway.

We saw further evidence of a new narrative emerging at the UN Climate Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh. Yes, GCC economies still rely on oil & gas, however, these countries also have a role to play in bringing about a cleaner energy future. And they are willing to invest billions.

As Vijay Vaitheeswaran, the global energy and climate innovation editor of The Economist, recently observed: “We will see a much stronger focus on how the energy industry itself can play a role as a decarboniser. It’s about a grown-up way of understanding the problem that oil and gas is here to stay.”

In 2023, negotiations on stemming climate change will resume in earnest at COP28, the Emirates Climate Conference. Just as Qatar confidently faced up to its critics to stage a brilliant World Cup, so the UAE will defy the doubters to host the next edition of the world’s most important climate gathering committed to positive, inclusive dialogue.

The positive knock-on effects should also not be underestimated, with Saudi Arabia now considering bids for both the FIFA World Cup and the World Expo. This promises further liberalization, and economic diversification, of what was once one of the world’s most conservative countries.

PR will lead from the front Inspired by its leaders’ bold ambitions and the aspirations of its 200 million plus youth, the MENA region will witness yet more inward investment and further financial forays overseas in 2023. I believe this requires expert communications advice that only consultancies born in the region can provide – a view further reinforced when ASDA’A BCW collected the award for Best Agency – UAE at the 2022 Campaign Agency of the Year Middle East awards.

An innate understanding of the culture, sustained investment in attitudinal research (a case in point being our annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, now entering its 15th year in 2023), and the commitment to embrace creative, integrated, and digital-first thinking will continue to secure the industry a seat at the decision maker’s table.


Originally published in Arabian Business

Top Findings of the ASDA’A BCW ESG Research Among Decision Makers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia

To mark the launch of OnePoint5, ASDA’A BCW’s Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) advisory, we commissioned an exclusive study of 200 decision makers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia to understand their perceptions about ESG.

The survey was conducted by PSB Middle East, the wholly owned data and analytics subsidiary of ASDA’A BCW, from May 22 to 29, 2022. The interview sample, comprising decision makers directly involved in ESG affairs, was evenly split between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Here are the top findings of the survey

Top findings

HSBC’s head of responsible investing dismisses climate activists as “nut jobs”

By Stephen Worsley

The financial industry was still reeling this week from incendiary comments made by one its most senior figures on the threat of climate change, or rather the lack of it.

Entitled ‘Why investors need not worry about climate risk’, the 16-minute address by Stuart Kirk, apparently now the former global head of responsible investments at HSBC Asset Management, to an audience of industry experts hosted by the Financial Times last week, had at the time of writing racked up more than 90,000 views on You Tube.

Add to that a few red faces at an institution that has pledged to help its customers achieve up to US$1 trillion in sustainable investments by 2030 – and been named best investment bank for sustainability.Stating that his beard was his “one sop to sustainable investing”, Mr. Kirk dismissed climate activists as “nut jobs” and bemoaned the tendency of his peers to “out-hyperbole the next guy” on the dangers of global warming on the international conference circuit.

Worst of all, he said, was the volume of climate change risk analysis he and his colleagues were being forced to do, at a time when HSBC was dealing with the “China problem”, cryptocurrency attacks, spiraling interest rates, inflation and a looming housing crisis.

“The proportionality is completely out of whack,” he exclaimed.

The Cambridge University graduate went on to insist that the markets agreed with him, arguing that the more the media used the term “climate catastrophe”, the more asset prices increased. Either this meant climate risk was negligible, that it was already priced in, or that investors were all wrong.

Fears about global warming were exaggerated, much like the Y2K scare at the turn of the century, because they underestimated the ability of human beings to adapt, Mr. Kirk concluded.

“Who cares if Miami is six meters under water in 100 years?” he reasoned. “Amsterdam has been six meters under water for ages and that’s a really nice place.”

While the FT will be delighted with the amount of engagement its humble webinar has received so far, Mr. Kirk’s rant raises a number of important issues.

Firstly, it shows how disconnected capital markets have become from the real economy, a recurring topic of debate since the downturn of 2008, from which stock markets have recovered strongly, unlike a great many households.

Share prices even continued to march upwards during the COVID-19 pandemic – remember that? – when capitalism itself was temporarily in a state of suspended animation.

Secondly, it reveals the worrying indifference of some financial professionals to climate change, a phenomenon that they, admittedly, will not be experiencing as acutely as billions of others around the world, mainly its poor.

While HSBC’s leadership was swift to distance itself from Mr. Kirk’s inflammatory remarks, other observers have been quick to defend his right to free speech and have praised him for dispensing some necessary “home-truths”.

These may be a minority, but even those committed to sustainable investing are generally only concerned with financially material climate change risks. The moral imperative of tackling global warming tends to feature less prominently in the debate, as Mr. Kirk’s outburst clearly illustrates.

Mr. Kirk also highlights a third issue, the genuine frustrations of policymakers in dealing with present-day crises, such as the war in Ukraine and the specter of a global recession, on the one hand, and the even more serious but relatively more distant threat of climate change on the other.

That is not to justify the head-in-the-sand thinking of Mr. Kirk, whose faith in humanity’s resilience to climate emergencies fails to account for the human cost of rising global temperatures. Nor the inability of the natural environment to adapt, on which we all depend.

Then again, who cares when Amsterdam and Miami are such nice places, even under water?

For communications professionals, Mr. Kirk exposes the reputational risk of speaking one’s mind in the online universe. Before, a frank exchange at an intimate gathering of industry professionals would have had few consequences. Today, as Kay-Achim Schönbach, the former head of the German navy, discovered when wandering off message during an online Q&A session on the Ukraine conflict in January, it can cause terminal damage to one’s career.

Webinars pose another stubborn communications problem – that of management approval.The FT insisted that the theme and content of Mr. Kirk’s presentation had been signed off by the suits at HSBC. But can a presentation amounting to a few bullet points and three emojis on a ten-slide PowerPoint deck really be approved?

I have a hunch that HSBC’s spokespeople will be submitting recorded versions of their speeches for their managers to scrutinize in the future. Or, like Stuart Kirk, they may find themselves suspended.

Watch Stuart Kirk’s presentation here

Stephen Worsley is the Senior Vice President – Growth & Innovation at ASDA’A BCW