The Arab Digital Generation: A Key Actor in Shaping the Future of the MENA Region

Booz & Company in collaboration with Google examine the potential of avid technology users in the region – aged 15 to 35 – and their ability to affect society and institutions in unprecedented ways.

A new generation is emerging in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Born between 1977 and 1997, this demographic represents 40 percent of the MENA population. A growing number of them are extremely active online and in social networks – with an impressive 83 percent using the Internet daily. They are the Arab Digital Generation (ADG). In truth, this segment of society strongly distinguishes itself from earlier generations; these young people are far more active as both consumers and critics. Although they have similar digital characteristics than other young people around the world, they are distinctly Arab in that they reflect the traditions, challenges and tribulations of their region. In light of this, management consulting firm Booz & Company, in partnership with Google, surveyed 3000 digital users spanning nine countries. The results portray how digital technology is impacting the ADG – giving it the potential to strongly influence sectors critical to the region’s socioeconomic development.

The Emergence of a New Generation

Although technology is driving social, civic, and economic shifts worldwide, the MENA region has more propensities to embody these changes than elsewhere, for several reasons. First, young people make up a larger portion of the overall population; in fact, from 2006 to 2011 the number of Internet users in Arab countries has been growing by 23 percent annually. In parallel, the region is undergoing a strong urbanization trend, and seeing extremely rapid growth in ICT infrastructure.

There are cultural factors at play, as well. In this day and age, digital technology offers another source of information, which can quickly upend traditional structures – such as family, religion, and societal norms – or reinforce them for organizations and institutions that can adapt and connect with these young people.

“In this way, the ADG represents a potentially greater disruption – as well as an immense opportunity – for society and institutions throughout the MENA region,” explained Dr. Karim Sabbagh, a Senior Partner with Booz & Company. “The ADG is actively seeking to build an identity distinct from previous generations and this pursuit will seep into all aspects of society from relationships to political spheres, consumer behavior, and even religion.”

The Survey: The survey by Booz & Company in collaboration with Google provides a clear snapshot of this generation’s evolving beliefs. It also points to several clear indicators for policymakers; business leaders; and those who oversee religious, education, and healthcare organizations.

In effect, the analysis looked at the ADG through several lenses, examining demographic, technographic (analyzing their usage of digital technology), and psychographic factors.

  • Demographics: Assessments indicate that the ADG represents about 10 million people – nearly 4 percent of the currently estimated 260 million digitally active users worldwide. Even more so, this figure is expected to rise to 13 million by 2014, a growth of 11 percent annually compared to only 7 percent for the world. Given that the ADG is a microcosm of the larger 15-35 age group, representing a fast-growing 40 percent of the MENA population, this demographic phenomenon is sure to amplify the social, economic, and political stakes in the region. The ADG is also highly educated, which drives greater technological use. Concerning marital status, most respondents (65 percent) within that segment stated that they had never been married.

  • Technographics: The technology behavior of the ADG can be depicted along two dimensions: online activities, and the platforms that they use to access the Internet. The most overriding purpose for Internet usage is personal entertainment such as online movies, blogs, or social media. In actuality, more than 40 percent of users watch videos online for entertainment at least once a day. By contrast, personal and administrative online tasks or professional and academic use of the Internet are limited.

  • Psychographics: Without a doubt, digital technology is a liberating force for the ADG. “A staggering 63 percent of respondents believe that they should be able to do what they want as long as it does not negatively affect other people,” said Mohamed Mourad, Google’s Regional Manager. “At the same time, far fewer (37 percent) feel that they are able to freely express their opinions without fear of consequences. These psychographics – the simultaneous notions of freedom and frustration – have clear effects on how the ADG relates to the state and to businesses.”

Longterm Impacts on the Mena Region

The ADG and its reliance on communications technology will undeniably have a profound effect on the MENA region’s future, impacting an array of realms. “The ADG appreciates the power of technology and, consequently, also wants to be heard. It is, however, tentative in its approach to how it engages with a range of institutions,” said Ramez Shehadi, a Partner with Booz & Company.

Impact of Society: At its most basic level, the Internet has transformed the way that people meet and interact with each other – also spurring paradoxical repercussions. The societal shifts among the ADG are evident in three principal areas:

  1. Communication with friends and family: The survey results found that members of the ADG have less direct personal contact with their family and friends, as technology increasingly provides them with communication alternatives. Some 44 percent say that they spend less time meeting close friends face-to-face and more time communicating with them online or over the phone. Others, however, feel that digital technology has improved their social connections to loved ones by providing them with instant and wide reach communication. A fraction of respondents also admit that too much time spent online leads to isolating behavior.

  1. Marriage: A striking example of changing views about marriage is the survey reaction to whether it is appropriate to marry a person whom the respondent had met online. Surprisingly, more than 60 percent in North Africa and the Levant approve of a male member of their family marrying a woman whom he had met online, with the GCC approval rate at 44 percent. Acceptance rates were equally high for women.

  1. Religion: Virtually all religious figures now have blogs and this provides people with access to different schools of thought and effectively removes the hierarchical aspect of religious discourse. Yet, contrary to popular wisdom, many respondents feel that this has reinforced their faith: the vast majority (approximately 70 percent) reported that technology allowed them to explore the various facets of religion through websites.

Impact on Institutions: The ADG will influence institutions in four principal areas comprising the government, private sector, education, and healthcare:

  • Government: Although regional governments have taken strong steps to digitize their societies, they haven’t effectively used digital tools to actively engage their constituents. On their part, the ADG expects social media to be transparent, crowd-sourced, and responsive. However, the engagement efforts of some MENA governments to date have been slow, hierarchical, and unresponsive. Moreover, members of the ADG also expressed a strong demand for further e-government services, with varying priorities among countries.

  • The Private Sector: The survey’s quantitative and qualitative results indicate that the MENA region is not currently meeting the expectations of the ADG when it pertains to e-commerce. “While respondents certainly research products and services online – some 90 percent claim to do so prior to making a purchase – they do not actually buy online,” added Mourad. “The most common reason for this is that many seem to mistrust e-commerce in general. Furthermore, the region’s financial sector needs to better align with recent communications and technology developments, as well as deliver a secure and reliable payment system network.”

  • Education: The ADG and many other segments of society within the region remain dissatisfied with the current state of education offerings. Overall, the sector suffers from poor quality in core education and support services. “The truth is, technology represents a prospective solution to these issues,” said Shehadi. “Because it is so pervasive in the region, and such a powerful means of transmitting information, it is particularly well-suited to education. It offers the means to increase fair access to education for all and spur critical thinking.” The survey reveals that, for respondents, education ranks second behind healthcare on the list of sectors in greatest need of improvement through ICT.

  • Healthcare: Finally, the healthcare sector in the MENA region is undoubtedly ripe for a digitization transformation. While governments in the region have significantly improved their healthcare systems over the past 30 years, those upgrades have not kept pace with changing demographics and other dynamics in the region. Presently, MENA healthcare expenditures account for only about 5 percent of GDP, yet this is projected to significantly rise in the coming generation. Such increased spending stems from substantial population growth, changing demographics and increasing rates of “lifestyle” ailments. Digitization, in turn, can clearly drive efficiencies in the provision of health care across the MENA region; these efforts, however, must strike a delicate balance that acknowledges privacy considerations and other sensitivities. Interestingly, the survey’s qualitative results also show that some ADG members are aware that technology in itself can lead to unhealthy lifestyles.

With fast-evolving developments in communication technologies, the growing Arab youth has not only become more digital than previous generations, but also developed concomitant characteristics that, in many ways, distance its members from the region’s prevailing norms and traditional practices. These new traits are a result of many factors, including exposure to other world cultures, constricting socioeconomic and political conditions and a great desire for impending change. “This generation has high expectations regarding digitization across myriad aspects of Arab society,” said Dr. Sabbagh. “Governments need to play their part by catering to the demands of the ADG’s members, successfully communicating with them and adequately prioritizing services.”

In sum, with about 90 million Internet users in Arab countries, growing at over 23 percent annually, the ADG will become a force with tremendous potential to transform the MENA region – across societal, political, and economic dimensions. Institutions and corporations in the region therefore have a rare opportunity. They can adapt to digital technology in order to more effectively connect and communicate with the ADG, thus harnessing its energy productively. Now is the time to combine the power of technology and the promise of the ADG.