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Last Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK
Middle East youth: A generation in flux
By Heather Sharp
BBC News

The Middle East's young people live in changing cultures in a changing region.

Fatima (right) and Sarah from Sharjah, UAE
Fatima (right) from the UAE likes to practice her favourite pop star's dance moves

And they make up a large part of that region's population. In most European countries less than 20% of the population is under the age of 15 - but in Iran the figure is 32%, in Egypt, 35% and in Saudi Arabia, 39%.

With the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Syrian pull-out from Lebanon and recent moves towards democracy - however tentative - from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain to Egypt, the region's political tectonic plates are shifting.

And more than ever before, globalisation, technological development and increased travel are bringing other cultures and attitudes to the region's cities, high streets and homes.

% of population under 15:
  • Yemen: 48.7
  • West Bank/Gaza: 46.1
  • Iraq: 41.4
  • Saudi Arabia: 39.1
  • Syria: 38.3
  • Jordan: 38.0
  • Oman:37.2
  • Egypt: 35.2
  • Iran: 32.6
  • Libya: 31.3
  • Lebanon: 29.6
  • Bahrain: 29.2
  • Israel: 27.9
  • Qatar: 26.6
  • Kuwait: 26.1
  • UAE: 25.8
  • In many ways young people - at least the educated middle classes - are just like their Western counterparts.

    They chatter on mobile phones, sleep over at friends' houses, learn pop stars' dance moves, sit exams, get summer jobs and spend hours online.

    But they also navigate a complex path between traditional culture, religious values, Western attitudes and social expectations as they go about the business of establishing identities, choosing careers and finding marriage partners.

    Cultural shifts

    I visited two cities where change is swift.

    Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is a glittering, hi-tech city which has sprung up in the desert in little more than 30 years and is held up as a successful blend of the modern and the traditional.

    Less than 20% of the UAE's population are "nationals", a community with deep Islamic roots and strong traditions. The rest are expatriate workers from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the US.

    Khaled from Egypt is risking arrest to protest for change

    Some young UAE men go clubbing all night, others seek virgin brides through family arrangements. Some do both.

    And while young women are frowned upon if they speak to unknown males in public, they are storming the bastions of male-dominated professions from policing to piloting and IT.

    And Egypt's capital, Cairo, is a diverse metropolis which has seen the miniskirts of the liberal 1970s give way to headscarves as an Islamic revival dominated the 1990s.

    But from the clothes on the streets, the pop music on the satellite TV channels and the underwear in the shops, there are signs of a counter swing.

    And after 23 years of virtual political silence under President Hosni Mubarak, young people are taking to the streets to denounce their leader in numbers which, although small, are unprecedented in the last two decades.

    Generation gap

    Conclusions are difficult to draw as views are diverse, issues are complex and attitudes mixed.

    One young UAE man, for example, would consider staying at home to care for children while his future wife worked, but would make her completely veil her face because "what I have, I want only for myself".

    One Egyptian girl dreamed of being the president of Egypt - but would expect her future husband to be the leader in their relationship.

    And another thought young people who had sex outside marriage were "like animals", but was a big fan of the controversially raunchy singer Ruby.

    However, the snapshots of young lives that we saw did demonstrate, at least among some, a yawning gulf between what is considered acceptable and what really takes place.

    The phrase "it happens under the table" kept cropping up in Egypt - while the words "it's not considered appropriate" were often used among UAE nationals.

    Adults and young people alike commented on the gulf between parents and their offspring.

    And one overarching theme was clear - the desire to be heard.


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