Understanding the Arab Digital Generation

Executive summary

A new generation is emerging in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Born between 1977 and 1997, this demographic is 40 percent of the MENA population. A growing number of them are extremely active online and in social networks. They are the Arab Digital Generation (ADG). Digital technology gives the ADG the potential to affect society and institutions in unprecedented ways.

To better understand the ADG, Booz & Company (now Strategy&), in partnership with Google, surveyed more than 3,000 digital users in nine countries. The results portray how digital technology is influencing the ADG and giving it the potential to shape the region in turn. Although technology is also affecting other young people around the globe, the Arab world is more susceptible to widespread change, due to demographics and the region’s strong behavioral norms.

The survey results show the impact of technology on society. The ADG is developing its own, less traditional ideas about family, religion, and marriage. The results also point to implications for sectors critical for socioeconomic development: 1) government, where the ADG has high expectations for transparency and e-government services; 2) the private sector, where the ADG’s significant buying potential is untapped; 3) education, where the ADG wants digital upgrades and new teaching tools as preparation for the job market; and 4) healthcare, where the ADG feels that providers can leverage new technology to improve access to care, along with quality and cost.

In sum, the ADG is distinguishing itself economically, socially, and politically from earlier generations. For policymakers, business and community leaders, and educators, this group represents an important change and potential opportunity. Those who wish to capitalize on the promise of the ADG must take active steps to better understand it and the digital world that it inhabits. If not, they risk increasing the digital divide, which can have serious socioeconomic implications in a global economy.

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Members of the ADG are increasingly willing to express their opinions and make choices regarding their own lives. This trait applies to all young people, but it is being enhanced by technology and by factors that are unique to the Arab region, where traditional authority structures and institutions have long held sway over the behavior of individuals. Although this generation understands that things may not change overnight, they are more willing than their parents to push the edges of the socioeconomic and political envelopes in order to make their voices heard. Nothing has encapsulated their desire for change more than the events of the Arab Spring.

Indeed, with fast and growing developments in communication technologies, the growing Arab youth generation has not only become more digital than previous generations but has also developed concomitant characteristics that, in many ways, distance its members from the region’s prevailing norms and traditional practices. These characteristics are a result of many factors, including exposure to other world cultures, the constricting socioeconomic and political conditions they have grown up with, and their great desire for change. These characteristics are reflected in our survey results, which show a complex ADG that is a study in contrasts:

  • Its members are increasingly connected via social networks, yet potentially more disconnected from friends and even family when it comes to direct interactions.
  • They love to go online to research products and discuss them, but they’re wary of actually buying goods through the Internet.
  • They are curious and acquisitive of knowledge, but they have little access to the Internet through schools or universities.
  • They are willing to question the status quo and to express dissatisfaction through online expression and civic activism, but shy away from actually engaging with government officials.
  • They question what came before, but they redefine tradition and previous practice rather than rejecting it.

They are independent thinkers whose beliefs are strengthened rather than subverted by the wide horizons offered to them online.

This generation has high expectations regarding digitization in many aspects of Arab society. Those demands are not being met. In business, for example, online transactions and payments are highly reliant on cash, resulting in unnecessary costs for companies that wish to sell to this generation. A perceived lack of Internet security and insufficient channels of distribution and delivery hamper economic activities and economic growth. Schools and universities lack the proper online infrastructures to enhance the cause of education and research, while the healthcare sector can be much improved via digitization in terms of quality, access, and cost. Finally, by catering to the demands of the ADG’s members, prioritizing services, and communicating with them, governments can better serve their people and strengthen their legitimacy.

In sum, with about 90 million Internet users in Arab countries, growing at over 23 percent annually,1 the ADG will become a force with tremendous potential to transform the MENA region along societal, political, and economic dimensions. How this energy is directed is currently unpredictable. 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.