American President Barack Obama’s administration has been seeking ways to strengthen ties with Muslim majority countries. In April, he made true on his June 2009 Cairo speech promise and hosted a presidential summit on entrepreneurship, which was intended to serve as a catalyst for expanded entrepreneurial cooperation, as well as economic growth in Muslim nations.
The summit brought together more than 275 participants from 50 countries to discuss the ways in which they can work together to galvanize entrepreneurialism in their respective industries and states. But it is the product of the summit, rather than the rhetoric, that will determine how the Middle East can capitalize on this initiative.
What is needed are tools which empower the private sector to pressure governments in the region to strengthen the legal and economic structures necessary to support a healthy business climate. However, even if these tools are created, their successful implementation will not be sustainable in the absence of an environment of peace and stability. Despite Obama’s best intentions, no amount of entrepreneurial success can replace the urgency of a comprehensive Middle East peace, which is fundamental to the region’s economic development.
There are many divides to be bridged and obstacles to be surmounted. Competing national visions, inherited conflicts and misconceptions, and large disparities in standards of living stand in the way of development.
Even among the friendliest neighboring countries, economic integration has been stalled, except for a few isolated attempts. Reforms have been in demand for decades, yet delivery has been cosmetic at best. As a result, the gap has been widening between the countries of the region, within those countries and, most alarmingly, between their citizens and leaders. The levels of unemployment, real growth and poverty in a region endowed with so much wealth and so many resources makes clear that the current system is not working, and strengthens the case for the kind of leadership and solidarity seen at the summit.
Governments in the region, with the support of the international community, should take a proactive stance in working to support the private sector via institutions that will ensure competition in national economies. Existing governments need to recognize the value of human resources in the region. The wealth of Arab countries lays not in the export of their natural resources, but instead in the opportunities and capabilities that are afforded to their people.
An institutional framework is needed that will breakdown clientalist structures, reform education to meet the demands of national economies and strengthen regional infrastructure projects.
In his remarks at Cairo University, Obama articulated the need to deal with our problems through partnership. The United States has a central role to fulfill in that partnership, and is the only party that has the influence to bring peace to the region. The US should regain its leadership role in fostering this or any other fair peace initiative to avert further deterioration of security in the region or a potential war. In the end, expanded economic success and the democratic imperative in the region can only be sustained by peace.
The Middle East has traditionally been a meeting place, a crossroad of civilizations. Trade routes passed through ancient Arabia for centuries with prosperity, tolerance and mutual benefit. The region cannot be allowed to slide into a whirlwind of conflicts, polarization and violence.
This can only be avoided by the foundation and empowerment of political and economic institutions that will provide the mechanisms to support sustainable development, participation, accountability and peaceful interaction among the various components that make up Middle Eastern societies.
Through the establishment of peace, barriers that prohibit the creation of these institutions will be reduced and incentives for politicians seeking a new legitimacy in a post-conflict region will be gained through the investment allotted to their citizens.
LARA ALAMEH is the executive director of the Safadi Foundation USA