Trump Must Make a Long-Term Investment in the Mideast
Dr. Jessica Ashooh is Deputy Director of the Middle East Strategy Task Force at the Atlantic Council. This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration. The views expressed are the author’s own.
This past November, a crowd of more than two thousand young Saudis gathered in Riyadh, the buttoned-up capital of the ultraconservative Saudi kingdom. Uniformly dressed in traditional white kandouras for the men and enveloping black abayas for the women, they sat, rapt, as they listened to an older, bearded man hold forth. Although softly spoken, his words carried a passionate intensity.
The man who so captivated his youthful audience was not an Islamic cleric, or mufti as they are known, many of whom achieve a kind of pious rock star status in the Kingdom. He wasn’t a Saudi, or even a Muslim at all. It was Alvy Ray Smith, the co-founder of Pixar, recounting the story of how the groundbreaking animation studio almost never was, having been turned down for financing dozens of times. The gathering was the MiSK Global Forum, an initiative of Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman to provide support and resources to young Saudi entrepreneurs -- women and men -- who are seeking to found startups in Saudi Arabia’s underdeveloped private sector.
The Saudi startup drive emerges out of a number of current trends in the Middle East that are typically seen as liabilities. A youth demographic bulge means that 70 percent of the Saudi population is under the age of thirty. Yet dramatically lower oil prices mean that the government can no longer afford to absorb them into the public sector, which employs about two-thirds of working Saudis.
In the past, such structural realities would have presented a dangerous story and not much else. But with technological advances that are only a few years old -- including the smartphone revolution -- there is more potential than ever to move these young people into the private sector. The Saudi government is starting to recognize that potential and has made tech-enabled entrepreneurship a backbone of its Vision 2030 reform plans. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and its success is not certain. But in an economic and demographic environment where there are few good options other than empowering these young people, it represents a bold step in the right direction that is worthy of U.S. support for clear national security reasons.
These events in Saudi Arabia are part of a broader trend in the Middle East toward tech-enabled entrepreneurial activities. The United Arab Emirates, long an island of stability in a dangerous neighborhood, is seeking to attract startup talent from across the region through its Dubai Future Accelerators program, which challenges Middle East entrepreneurs to develop marketable solutions to the problems of the modern world. In Egypt, female techies crowdsource HarassMap.org to help them map and report Cairo’s notorious street harassment.
Far from being a fringe effort of the elite, tech-enabled entrepreneurship is developing even in the direst circumstances of the Middle East’s conflict zones. Syrian refugees living in Jordan have founded 3Dmena to train their peers in using 3D printing technology; one of the project’s biggest successes was the development of a prosthetic limb component at a cost 95 percent reduced from that of existing manufacturers. Jamalon, the Middle East’s largest online bookseller, was founded by a Palestinian refugee raised in a camp. And at last summer’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit, held at Stanford University, a young Gazan recalled colleagues using Skype to pitch investors in Silicon Valley even amid the bombardments of the 2014 Gaza war.
Entrepreneurship is also empowering women in the Middle East. More than one-third of startup founders in the Middle East are women -- compared to only 3 percent of tech founders in Silicon Valley. In many cases, women are using social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook as digital showrooms, giving them access to global markets. The additional income that these initiatives provide has the benefit of demonstrating the value of women’s work to more conservative family members -- particularly in a time of financial belt-tightening -- and is slowly breaking down retrograde attitudes about gender.
In a Middle East that remains intensely unstable, these developments portend real interests for the United States and deserve the attention of the new administration. Some in Washington are beginning to see the potential of this wave of startup energy. In their bipartisan Middle East Strategy Task Force report, Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley assert that “[t]he region’s people are its most important resource,” and push for supporting as a matter of urgency those countries that are trying to develop their human capital, with an emphasis on youth, women, and refugees.
The challenge, however, is to tamp down the current violence in the region to allow these positive initiatives to flourish. In this regard, enhanced U.S. security engagement in the Middle East is crucial. Spoilers like ISIS cannot be defeated without a degree of military pressure, and outsourcing the job to people like Syrian ruler Bashar Assad or Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose security strategies rely on crushing independent initiative rather than nurturing it, is a recipe for an unending cycle of conflict.
Instead, American security engagement should sharpen its focus on the terrorism that is challenging the Middle East’s state system, while simultaneously coupling that engagement with long-term human development efforts that foster inclusive, well educated, and just societies. These are the environments where small businesses can thrive, and it is small businesses and individuals -- not massive state efforts -- that will stabilize Middle Eastern societies and set the region on a more promising path.
The future of the Middle East lies in its people. A small but important group of countries in the region are beginning to recognize this, and deserve support not just because it is right, but because it is smart strategy. An American policy that treats the Middle East not as a short-term problem to be managed but a long-term investment may yield an unexpected dividend: peace.