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Hichem Karoui: Satisfied with your life?
March 10, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

In 2011, according to a recent survey conducted in 12 Arab countries, 73 per cent of the respondents said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their life; while only 27 per cent expressed dissatisfaction. Based on these findings, how would you explain the anger that burst out in the same year inflaming the whole region and overthrowing long-established dictatorial regimes?

First, let us explain that this is one of the most important and largest opinion surveys of the kind. It is a genuine project of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS), covering 12 countries, representing 85 per cent of the population of the Arab world, based on the results of 16,173 face-to-face interviews.

The second observation is that the questionnaire was purposely intended to be varied and detailed, meaning that — as we know the blockages working inside the Arab mind as well as within the society, because of uncontrollable elements like: long oppression, fear, inhibition, etc... The interviewees were asked several times almost the “same” question: then, as soon as the question becomes more precise, the answer would differ. For example, if you link the question about “satisfaction with your life” to “your finances,” “the expenses of your family,” “your economic condition,” “your work,” etc... the answer would be more modulated.

It seems then that this large percentage of “satisfaction” among the citizens of the Arab countries has to be relativised, taken into consideration the religious and traditional mind frame of the average Arab citizen, not to mention the political condition of these countries, and the security-related issues for each individual. Let us put this plainly: in most Arab countries, the citizens are wary of all people intending to “interrogate” them about their opinions and life.

What if they were “spies” of the government? What if they were secret police? So, the interviewer has to surmount the basic mistrust and the first question is just intended to establish the contact smoothly. If you were an Arab citizen and I come to ask you: are you satisfied with your life? What would be your spontaneous answer if not: “Alhamdulillah ala kulli hal” (Praise be to God for everything)? If following you, I insist: Alhamdulillah, but are you satisfied? Most probably, you would invoke the grace of Allah again and reply: yes, I am.

Now, if I go further, and ask you about the financial condition of your family, your satisfaction would be restricted to a precise field, which is: finances. Thereupon, your answer would tell me more about your material condition than your first “spontaneous” assessment of the situation.

Some findings of this survey thus need more explanation.

Examples: We found that 56 per cent of the Saudiens are “very satisfied” with their life; along with: 55 per cent of the Mauritanians; and 53 per cent of the Sudanese.

I can understand the Saudi percentage if I link it to the overall economic condition of the country. But how about Mauritania and Sudan?

Actually, in answering the question about “your degree of satisfaction with your economic situation,” 26 per cent only of the Saudis said they were “very satisfied,” 19 per cent only of the Sudanese, and 12 per cent only of the Mauritanians. Here, we understand with more precision how the first answer about the general question (satisfaction with life) comes to be relativised.

If we come back and explore the degree of dissatisfaction with life, we would find that the largest percentage of “absolute dissatisfaction” is in Iraq: 25 per cent; followed by Lebanon: 20 per cent; and Palestine: 16 per cent.

Should we link this “absolute dissatisfaction” to the second question about the economic condition? The answer is: yes, to a large extent.

“Absolutely dissatisfied” with their economic situation are: the Lebanese (32 per cent); the Palestinians and the Yemenites (28 per cent); and the Iraqis (25 per cent).

So yes, the economic condition affects your degree of satisfaction with life.

I should add that if the questionnaire was more detailed, the categories of answers ranged between: very satisfied; satisfied to a certain degree; dissatisfied to a certain degree; absolutely dissatisfied; and no answer.

Concerning the last category, the percentage regarding the question of satisfaction is almost negligible (1 per cent in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and 2 per cent in Iraq).

Now, those who are satisfied to a certain degree represent the largest part among our sample. Among them: Algeria (58 per cent); Egypt (51 per cent); Palestine (48 per cent); Tunisia (48 per cent)...

If we put Algeria aside (for it is a case in its own right), how would you explain that amazing percentage of satisfaction in countries where popular revolts recently happened?

Let us follow the answers in these three countries (Egypt, Tunisia and Palestine) regarding the economic condition: 47 per cent of the Tunisians said they were “satisfied to a certain degree”; 46 per cent of the Egyptians, and 35 per cent of the Palestinians. This is not bad at all if you consider the fact that the top level of “satisfaction to a certain degree” with the economic condition is in Saudi Arabia: 49 per cent.

We still have the thorny question: how come that “satisfied” people revolt against their regimes?

This would lead us to formulate a hypothesis about revolutions, which is not necessarily linked to the economic condition, but rather to other social and political issues, like: poor governance, deficiency of public and private freedoms, human rights violations, corruption, and craving for freedom. The hypothesis deserves to be further explored in the light of the data now available thanks to the Arab Opinion Index.

This does not mean that the economic condition does not count; but only that the economic performance, whatever its level, would not guarantee stability and civil peace, if some regions or social groups are excluded from its gains, and the political regime stays unresponsive towards the demands of reform and democratic change.

I would add that I treated here briefly just two little questions (from the first issue) in a large survey that is concerned with six main issues (each with its own series of questions): 1- assessment of the overall situation; 2- the Arab revolutions; 3- Democracy; 4- trust in institutions; 5- religion in public life; 6- perceptions of the exterior environment.

To be sure, we live in a different Arab world. Officials from the international community and the Arab world should be mindful of imperceptible changes occurring in the social segment, without asking for their consent.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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