A Revolutionary Generation? Assessing Standards of Political Efficacy among MENA Youth using Anchoring Vignettes

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Justin Gengler, Social and Economic Survey Research Institute, Qatar University

What role do youth populations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) play in spurring progress toward more accountable and participatory governance?  10 years after the Arab Spring, MENA youth still are commonly portrayed as politically agitated and even revolutionary, motivated to undo the political corruption, submissiveness, and apathy of older generations through radical change.[1]  But is it true that the youngest cohort of MENA adults possesses systematically higher standards for political accountability, participation, and efficacy than those who came before them?

Quantitative studies based on public opinion survey data collected prior to the uprisings have cast doubt on the conventional narrative that post-2011 protests were spurred by a youth generation possessing new ways of engaging with and thinking about their governments and about politics.[2]  More generally, such empirical findings challenged the assumption that MENA youth differed from older citizens along important political, as opposed to social or economic, dimensions.  But, nearly a decade later, does the same hold true?  Or has the observed socioeconomic gap between younger and older Arab generations given way to a similar divergence in political attitudes and behavior? 

This paper investigates these questions using a novel empirical approach that leverages an emerging tool of survey research: anchoring vignettes.[3]  Anchoring vignettes allow direct estimation of the criteria individuals use to make complex subjective evaluations—such as in self-assessments of health, mobility, or job satisfaction—and are increasingly employed in political science to study a wide range of substantive topics.  Notably, in the only previous application of anchoring vignettes in the MENA region, results of a survey in Qatar revealed that younger Qataris used lower standards than older citizens to judge what constitutes influence over government decision-making, contrary to expectations rooted in common narratives about post-Arab Spring youth empowerment.[4]

The present study extends previous work both geographically and theoretically.  It is based on rare cross-national survey data collected in 2016-2017 from the least democratic subregion of the Middle East: the resource-rich Arab Gulf states.  The survey of more than 4,000 respondents was conducted face-to-face in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, and asked men and women to rate the political efficacy of hypothetical individuals seeking to influence decision-makers through various means.[5]  Survey responses are then used to estimate the thresholds separating response categories—i.e., no influence, low influence, medium influence, or high influence—that correspond to subjective assessments of political efficacy; and to observe how these category thresholds vary as a function of a respondent’s age and other individual-level characteristics, as well as across the five countries included in the survey.

Analysis of the anchoring vignettes offers no evidence either that Arab Gulf youth enjoy an objectively greater political efficacy than older individuals, or that younger Gulf citizens conceive of political efficacy in more rigorous terms.  Instead, results point, if anything, to the opposite conclusion in line with extant findings from Qatar: that it is older, rather than younger, Gulf citizens who possess more stringent criteria for evaluating one’s influence over state decisions.  These findings challenge or qualify assumptions about generational differences in orientations toward politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

The MENA Youth Revolution

Until now, the view of MENA youth as a revolutionary generation has been supported by observations of political attitudes and behavior that would seem to indicate that young people in the Middle East are more interested in politics, more active in politics, and/or more inclined to seek fundamental rather than incremental reform of the prevailing political order.  These observations are often qualitative, based on impressions that young people seem disproportionately to comprise protest movements, are more active in online spaces where critical opinions can be expressed, and so on.

Yet available quantitative data, such as the results of representative public opinion surveys conducted in MENA countries, have offered more dubious support for the notion of youth exceptionalism.  Most notable in this regard is a 2012 study by Hoffman and Jamal, who analyze cohort differences along numerous economic, social, religious, and political indicators using pre-Arab Spring data from the cross-national Arab Barometer (AB) survey.  They conclude that, while the data do evidence some differences between younger and older Arabs, these are mainly along demographic and religious variables.  Meanwhile, their findings show that, prior to the Arab Spring, MENA youth were less politically engaged than older citizens and had no different conceptualization of democracy.

Analysis of the most recent wave of the Arab Barometer survey, conducted in 2014-2017, shows that these broad characterizations remain true across a wide range of attitudinal and behavioral indicators, encompassing both formal and informal modes of political involvement.  According to the most recent AB data, respondents under the age of 30 continue to be less likely to have participated in the latest elections in each of the eight countries surveyed—and by substantial margins.  As summarized in Table 1, the ratio of adult to youth voters ranges from around 1.6-1.7 in Egypt, Jordan, andQatar, to a whopping 5.7 and 6.2 in Lebanon and Palestine, respectively.  All differences based on age are associated with a very high level of statistical confidence.

Table 1. Electoral participation among MENA youth, 2014-2017

Notes: Data from Arab Barometer, Wave 4 (2016-2017)

Similarly, the newest AB data evidence lower levels of political interest in general among MENA youth as compared to among adults.  As per Table 2, this result obtains in six of the eight countries surveyed in 2014-2017, while in the remaining two—Morocco and Qatar—there is no difference in political interest reported by younger versus older men and women.  Once again, the survey data run counter to the notion of a youthful generation driving political activism and change in the Middle East and North Africa.

Table 2. Political interest among MENA youth, 2014-2017

Notes: Data from Arab Barometer, Wave 4 (2016-2017); proportion “very” or “somewhat” interested in politics

Of course, it is reasonable to hypothesize that MENA youth may eschew formal political participation via elections precisely because they reject the existing political system and seek to overturn it, and that their overall disinterest in politics stems from the same reason.  Yet, empirical indicators of non-formal political involvement offer only marginally more convincing evidence that Arab youth are systematically more active in political life than are older citizens.  Depicted in Table 3, for instance, is youth online political participation according to the Arab Barometer.  In only three of the eight countries is there a statistically significant difference between the proportion of younger versus older citizens who report that they “use the Internet to express [their] views about politics,” and in each case—Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine—it is those aged 30 and above, not youth, who tend to be more engaged.  

Table 3. Online political engagement among MENA youth, 2014-2017

Notes: Data from Arab Barometer, Wave 4 (2016-2017); * significant only at p < 0.05 level


Table 4. Participation in political demonstrations among MENA youth, 2014-2017

Notes: Data from Arab Barometer, Wave 4 (2016-2017); * significant only at p < 0.05 level

Conversely, one domain in which MENA youth remain more active is participation in demonstrations and protests.[6]  This is shown in Table 4.  In more than half of surveyed countries—Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia—people under 30 were more likely to report having participated in at least one protest in the past year.  However, in two of these instances the statistical association is relatively weak, and in three countries there is no difference at all based on age.  It is also not possible to know the nature of the political demonstrations in which individuals have been involved, and the extent to which these intended to oppose, or instead support, a government, particular political faction, or issue.  

Figure 1. Preference for incremental versus revolutionary reform among MENA youth

Finally, when asked directly to state their preference between political reform that occurs incrementally (“little by little”) versus radical change (“all at once”), MENA youth show no difference in opinion compared to their older compatriots.  This AB result is illustrated in Figure 1.  The figure shows substantial cross-country variation in preferences regarding the speed of reform, but almost no difference based on age.  

Thus, notwithstanding qualitative impressions about the role of youth in spurring political change within the region, available cross-national survey data collected both before and after the Arab Spring offer, at best, inconclusive support for the proposition that the youngest generation of MENA adults is or has been more politically interested, engaged, and revolutionary than their predecessors.  True, in some countries youth are more likely to attend demonstrations, but they also are far less likely than men and women over 29 to take a general interest in politics or to participate in politics through the ballot box or even online, a space commonly associated with youth political activism.  Young men and women also show no greater preference for immediate rather than gradual political change as compared to their parents and grandparents.  As shown, these trends hold across a diverse set of MENA countries.  

Assessing Standards of Political Efficacy among MENA Youth

Extant public opinion data are useful in helping to answer the basic empirical question surrounding youth politics in the MENA region, namely whether the youngest generation of adults exhibits attitudes and actions consistent with heightened expectations surrounding political empowerment and change.  However, such data cannot directly probe the micro-level behavioral foundations that the theory of MENA youth empowerment implies: the idea that something has changed in the way that young people in the Middle East and North Africa think about politics and about their rightful role in society’s governance; that the standards of political efficacy among youth have fundamentally shifted.

More than traditional survey questions, the emerging survey research tool of anchoring vignettes is well-suited to test this claim.  The primary purpose of anchoring vignettes is to correct for differences in the way that individuals or groups make subjective self-assessments in surveys.  The approach works by asking respondents to rate examples of hypothetical individuals using the same response scale that is used in self-assessment.  Since vignettes are ‘anchored’ to objective cases, any variation in rating can be attributed to inter-personal differences in the way that respondents interpret the survey response scale itself—that is, differences in the conceptual thresholds separating, say, a “medium” level of efficacy from a “high” level.  In the final step of the vignette analysis, differences in category thresholds are used to rescale respondents’ original self-assessments, to produce ‘corrected’ responses that are comparable across all individuals.

Applied to the question of political efficacy, then, anchoring vignettes actually offer two separate sets of insights.  A first is whether it is indeed true that MENA youth enjoy a higher objective level of political efficacy compared to older citizens. This question is answered by analyzing vignette-corrected self-assessments.  But the mechanics of the vignette correction also offers a window into the micro-foundations of political efficacy in the MENA region, by showing differences in how people interpret what it means to be politically efficacious.  Do men, for instance, employ higher standards than women in judging citizen influence over state decision-making?  Or more educated individuals?  Or, more to the point, MENA youth compared to previous generations?

Table 5 summarizes the results of this analysis.  The first four columns report the estimated effect of youth (i.e., being younger than 30 years of age) on the response category thresholds used to measure political efficacy in the survey.  The survey asked, “How much influence do you have in getting the state to address concerns that are important to you?” Responses were: “none,” “a little,” “some,” “a lot,” and “unlimited.”  As shown in Table 5, in most cases, age category had no impact on the conceptual distinctions used to delineate response categories.  In the two instances in which it did, the results show that it is older, rather than younger, Gulf citizens who employ more stringent criteria for judging their own political efficacy.

Table 5. Political efficacy among GCC youth, 2017-2018

Notes: Data from SESRI GCC Identity Survey (2017-2018); data from UAE unavailable; p-values in parentheses; baseline Age category is 30+

Likewise, when the vignettes are used to correct for inter-personal differences in response scale usage in order to produce a reliable estimate of objective political efficacy, here again the idea of MENA youth political empowerment is contradicted by the findings.  This is shown in the final column of Table 5.  In one case, Oman, younger citizens are associated with objectively lower levels of political efficacy, while in Qatar and Bahrain the estimated coefficient is also negative although not statistically significant.  In the remaining two countries, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the estimated effect is approximately zero.

This evidence of youth unempowerment in the Arab Gulf states, while perhaps running counter to conventional narratives, does admit of potential explanations rooted in the prevailing framework for understanding Gulf politics: rentier state theory.[7]  First, Gulf citizens are widely theorized to be linked to the state and to each other through secondary and tertiary networks of rent distribution, and these economic patronage networks serve as primary channels for informal influence (wasta).[8]  It takes time for a person to develop the social connections needed to navigate state bureaucracies, solve personal problems, and gain entrée with decision-makers, and so it stands to reason that older individuals, on average, may wield greater political influence as a result.

A second way that the rentier system may have encouraged lower rather than higher levels of political efficacy among Arab Gulf youth relates to changes over time in the magnitude of resource revenues, and thus economic largesse, available to Gulf regimes.  Compared to previous generations born during periods of sustained low oil prices, the youngest cohort of Gulf citizens came of age at a time when their governments enjoyed much higher levels of oil and gas rents with which to buy political loyalty—or at least attempt to do so.  At the same time, resource rents fueled unprecedented economic development and modern accoutrements that further dampened interest in formal political involvement.[9]

Finally, lower youth expectations surrounding political influence in the Gulf likely reflect the reality of transformed state-society relations between the early versus later post-oil periods.  Whereas older Gulf citizens may still remember when ruling sheikhs could be petitioned directly with individual requests and complaints, the unwieldy and inefficient bureaucratic structures erected in the intervening decades have largely supplanted such personal contact between citizens and decision-makers.  The upshot is a system of political influence that is more diffuse, less transparent, and less likely to result in feelings that one’s views made a difference or indeed were heard at all.


This essay has posed a basic question regarding MENA youth politics: is it indeed the case that the Middle East’s youth generation is measurably different from previous cohorts in their political attitudes and behavior, and, if so, along which dimensions exactly?  To help provide an answer, it first presented findings from the latest 2014-2017 wave of the cross-national Arab Barometer survey.  These results serve as an update to previous work that was based on survey data collected prior to the 2011 Arab uprisings; yet they evidence the same substantive conclusion.  Apart from participation in demonstrations, MENA youth tend to be less interested, less engaged, and less demanding in politics than older citizens, and this result obtains across a wide cross-section of the Arab world.

The analysis then proceeded to investigate whether Arab youth—in particular, those of the autocratic Gulf region—perhaps possess understandings of political efficacy that are more stringent than those of previous generations, even if they do not readily manifest in observable political attitudes and behaviors.  The results of this inquiry likewise contradicted the idea of youth exceptionalism: in general, Gulf youth judge their political influence using the same criteria as do other citizens, and in the few cases where the data evidence a disparity based on age, they demonstrate that systematically lower criteria are employed by youth.  This finding too is generalizable across the Gulf region.

In considering these results, one may object that opinion surveys necessarily capture only a number of the myriad ways that MENA youth or other citizens may involve themselves in political life, challenge authorities and the status quo, and ultimately effect change.  But such an observation merely calls for better conceptualization and measurement of the expansive notion of ‘youth politics.’  The use of insights from anchoring vignettes and other emerging tools of survey research represents one possible path forward.

[1] E.g., Al-Momani, Mohammad. “The Arab “Youth Quake”: Implications on Democratization and Stability.” Middle East Law and Governance 3, no. 1-2 (2011): 159-170; LaGraffe, Dan. “The youth bulge in Egypt: An intersection of demographics, security, and the Arab Spring.” Journal of Strategic Security 5, no. 2 (2012): 65-80; Thiel, Tobias. “After the Arab Spring: power shift in the Middle East?: Yemen’s Arab Spring: from youth revolution to fragile political transition.” (2012); Murphy, Emma C. “Problematizing Arab youth: Generational narratives of systemic failure.” Mediterranean Politics 17(1) (2012): 5-22; Herrera, Linda, ed. Wired citizenship: Youth learning and activism in the Middle East. Routledge, 2014.

[2] Michael Hoffman and Amaney Jamal. “The youth and the Arab spring: cohort differences and similarities.” Middle East Law and Governance 4, no. 1 (2012): 168-188.

[3] King, Gary, Christopher JL Murray, Joshua A. Salomon, and Ajay Tandon. “Enhancing the validity and cross-cultural comparability of measurement in survey research.” American Political Science Review 98(1):  (2004): 191-207.

[4] Justin Gengler and Jocelyn S. Mitchell, 2018, “A Hard Test of Individual Heterogeneity in Response

Scale Usage: Evidence From Qatar,” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 30(1): 102-124.

[5] More complete methodological details of the surveys are reported in Appendix A of Justin Gengler, 2017, “The Political Economy of Sectarianism: How Gulf Regimes Exploit Identity Politics as a Survival Strategy,” in Frederic Wehrey, ed., Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 304-305.

[6] Cf. Hoffman and Jamal, 2012, pp. 180ff.

[7] Giacomo Luciani, “Allocation vs. Production States: A Theoretical Framework,” in Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani, eds., The Rentier State: Nation, State and Integration in the Arab World (London: Croom Helm, 1987); Hossein Mahdavy, “Patterns and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier States: the Case of Iran,” in M. A. Cook, ed. Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East: From the Rise of Islam to the Present Day(London: Oxford University Press, 1970); Michael L. Ross, “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?” World Politics 53(3): 325-361, 2001.

[8] Hertog, Steffan. The sociology of the Gulf rentier systems. Comp Stud Soc Hist 2010;52:282–318.

[9] Miriam Cooke, Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014); Pascal Menoret, Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt (London: Cambridge University Press, 2014).