Rebalancing the equation

Reviewing Arab-US relations a decade after 9/11

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Events following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on the global stage involved wars and fundamental challenges to the established political and economic frameworks. While the ability to draw direct correlations between a past event and present challenges dissipates over time, now, a decade after the event, 9/11 must be acknowledged as a turning point in contemporary history for the immense changes it precipitated in the United States, the Arab world and the global order.  

Did 9/11 succeeded in sparking a conflict between Muslim and Western civilizations? From an American vantage point the clash of civilizations is not a given, according James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute and senior analyst at Zogby International, the pollster firm founded by his brother John. “The majority opinion in America [on Arabs] is not as bad as people think it to be. Our polling indicates that,” he told Executive.  

According to Zogby, public opinion in the United States trends toward a balanced view on Arab issues. “Elderly, white, born-again Christians are very pro-Israel, and decidedly so, but African American, Asian and Hispanic — who after all are about a third of the population — as well as young and educated people are more pro-balance and pro-peace,” he said.

What issue is most important for the US to address in order to improve ties with the Arab World?

Issue most important for US to address

Questions were asked in spring 2011, Source: Arab Attitudes 2011 survey by Zogby International for Arab American Institute Foundation

Ahmed Younis, senior analyst with Gallup, also notes that the polling organization’s surveys have found that the Western perception that religiously observant Muslims nurse anti-American sentiments runs counter to the actual trend: “What we find in the data for Muslims globally is that the more religious you are and the more regularly you attend the mosque, the more likely you are to say that you are ready for engagement with the West and to say that the conflict with the West is not inevitable.”

“What 9/11 did do in the minds of people in the West and in Muslim-majority societies was to have them enter the process of exploring if the conflict [between Muslim and Western worlds] is inevitable or if there is readiness for the two groups to engage,” he added.

Repondents with positive view of the US (%)

Respondents with positive view of US

Source: Arab American Institute Foundation/Zogby International

The increased American interest in understanding Muslim and Arab cultures has been tangible since 9/11, confirmed Lara Alameh, executive director of the Safadi Foundation USA, a civil society organization that aims to further economic development and job creation in Lebanon and other Arab countries. “I think some prejudices have increased [post 9/11] but at the same time there has been a huge interest,” she said, illustrating from her personal experience that, when graduating in 2001 from a university in Washington, DC, she was “one of about two people with a major in Middle Eastern studies. If you look at the graduating classes of Middle Eastern studies at the same university now, you have hundreds [of graduates].” Alameh added that she is being increasingly approached by young Americans who want to travel to Lebanon for employment or internship opportunities.

Where things went wrong

In parallel to the growth of interest, prejudice and discrimination against Arab-Americans — who account for about 1 percent of the US population — is a growing concern within the national culture. According to Younis, a recent Gallup poll found that a majority of American Muslims said that they experience discrimination and prejudice regularly. “They have a perception that the average American discriminates against Muslims,” he said, but noted black and Asian Muslims generally do not experience more prejudice than other non-Muslim members of the same race.

Whether the taste of a  McDonalds meal has helped or hindered  US-Arab relations remains a subject of debate

Evidence of Americans’ split perceptions of Arabs and Muslims is as far reaching as ever. From initiatives to ban “Islamic law” on state levels to anti-Arab rants in the media and blogosphere, the tensions are clear and the divisions evident. One telling case was when the embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington last month donated funding for computers to the children of the town of Joplin, Missouri, which had been devastated by a May 22 tornado. In response to the announcement, online ‘opinionators’ in the southern town immediately questioned whether the community had sold out to that “country that brought us the 9/11 hijackers”, and produced other slander —which was then quickly rebuked by other members of the community.      

According to Zogby, the views of Arab issues in the US are indeed strained by a partisan split but the researcher attributed this less to the original terror attacks and more to the response of the American leadership of the time: “The Bush administration fed this nascent conflict and gave it life and made it real. The war in Iraq and the way Afghanistan was handled and the neglect and reckless approach to the Israeli Palestinian situation dug very deep holes between America and the Arab world.”

More recently, the strain on American–Arab relations within the US seems largely due to Republican politicians and their supporters fueling attacks against a Democratic president through fomenting fear of, and anger toward, Muslims — indeed the extent of their success was evident in the political fire-storm that was ignited by the popularized assertion that President Barack Obama is actually a Muslim in Christian guise.

Economic Realities

It is an open debate as to what degree economic relations can be the foundations for peace, though it has often been documented how economic interests have historically been the motives for war. This notwithstanding, the strengthening of mutually beneficial business ties between Arab countries and the US has a great potential for changing both realities and perceptions.

Of all Arab countries, only Saudi Arabia is a major actor —regularly one of America’s top 10 or 15 trade partners in the monthly US import statistics — when it comes to Arab economic dealings with the United States. Saudi export performance to the US, however, is hugely distorted by the dominant role of petroleum, as is the case for Kuwait, the second GCC member state with a large trade surplus vis-à-vis the US in 2010. Of combined deliveries to the US worth almost $37 billion in 2010 from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, non-oil exports accounted for less than 3 percent of total value.

Moreover, it is only oil that the US is buying from the Arab world in significant quantities. A country like Qatar, whose international trade revenue is based on liquefied natural gas production, currently does not even reach an annual export volume of $1 billion to the US.American exports

The impact of purpose-designed incentives has also been noticeable, though on a small scale. The prime example here is Jordan, whose exports to the US ballooned at the start of the century as result of Jordanian-Israelico-production in exportable goods in special economic zones, instituted as a reward for Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel. 

But while the billion-dollar annual shipments of goods from Jordan to the United States has not maintained growth momentum through the second half of the last decade, the Israeli-American trade story is a demonstration of an economically successful interaction for a country in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since 1994, the US trade balance with Israel has been skewed in Israel’s favor each and every year.

According to the office of the US Trade Representative, Israel has established a solid role as supplier of several categories of machinery to the US ($3.7 billion in 2010), pharmaceutical products ($5.2billion) and of diamonds and precious stones ($7.9 billion). Perhaps also telling is the difficulty in finding a Palestinian export to the US of note.

Imports to the US from Israel from January 2010 through June 2011 amounted to six times the value of goods imported in the same period from Israel’s direct Arab neighbor states, namely Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. While this ratio, from an Arab perspective, represents something of an improvement when compared with the period of 1996 to 2000 — when annual Israeli exports to America were roughly 12 times the size of the same four Arab countries — it was almost unchanged when compared with the skew in favor of Israel between 2000 and 2005.

Even without discussing the selective offering of American military hardware, the imbalance of positive and mutually profitable business ties between the US and Arab countries and the US and Israel, is as deeply engrained as it is massive.   

While politics and culture play a role in the absence of real trade development between Arab countries and America, it would be futile, faulty and self-defeating for advocates of Arab trade expansion to attribute the miserable performance only to factors of identity and affinity. As Gallup’s Ahmed Younis pointed out, the Arab problem is much more direct and practical. “In order to trade, you must have the capacity to create something that the market on the other side of the divide is interested in consuming. The primary challenge [is] in creating a trade balance that brings about equality and respect in Muslim-Western relations — the primary obstacle is that most Muslim majority societies are not producing anything that they can trade,” he said.

Younis added that the middle-income Arab countries are crucial for developing genuine trade. In his recommendation, “there must be the entrance of multi-national companies and the ability of governments in the region and around the world to help catalyze the development of small-to-medium-size enterprises that serve as supply chains for these multinational corporations.”

A slowly expanding pattern in the promulgation of local bases in Arab countries for such economic relations with the multinationals of the world has been created by entrepreneurship initiatives. Fostered by a variety of civil society entities, government programs and capitalist ventures, entrepreneurship drives are a part of the post-9/11 decade in the Arab world that have, to a large part, been motivated by the ideology of modern business empowerment rather than by political considerations. However, according to the Safadi Foundation’s Alameh, policy makers in Washington still rely on “old thinking” about the Middle East. “The main interests — oil, Israeli security and containing Iraq/Iran have not changed in the post-9/11 context. What has changed is the rhetoric, the language used with the people, but actual strategies I don’t think have changed much,” she said.

The 10th anniversary of 9/11, then, will pass as inequitable trade relations remain between countries such as Lebanon and the US. According to Tarek Sadi, the Lebanon managing director of Endeavor, a global entrepreneurship organization headquartered in the US, for entrepreneurs in the Middle East “selling to America is an important part of their plans.” Viable growth of trade, however, should be seen as a policy for the next 10 years.

Experts contend that the Arab governments and elites of today are still ill equipped for managing and driving entrepreneurship programs and rely on foreign expertise even where funding of programs can be achieved with ease from local sources in the region. However, with research showing that the desire to start one’s own business is up to 10 times higher among young Arabs of today than among the same age group in Western societies, policies and initiatives in favor of entrepreneurship would go a long way towards treating economic disenfranchisement.

Still a way to go

According to the findings of a Gallup poll of Muslims in the Arab world, being exposed to cultural disrespect is one of three main grievances they hold against the West. The perception of being disrespected, when analyzed more closely, is tied to absence of “fairness and equity of engagement”. Muslims, says Younis, ask: “Why is it that the freedom that you consider inalienable to you, your government is not making available to me and my country?’ In order to reverse that perception of disrespect, to reverse the perception of inequity, America and western countries need to play a role in bringing about those things that Muslims see globally as good in America and good for their own societies, and those things that they want for their own societies.”

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail