NEWS ANALYSIS: Cautiously Tasting the Fruits of Arab Spring

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By Bernhard Schell

AMMAN - As the United States and the Arab world strive to redesign their relationship to derive most benefit from the Arab spring, they realize that an array of misapprehensions is weighing heavily on the horizon, discussions during a World Economic Forum Special Meeting at the Dead Sea revealed.

Former Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain from Arizona, tried a fresh cell therapy when he assured that the United States does not fear the political participation of Islamist parties in newly democratic Arab countries. The United States must help the Arab Spring succeed, he said. A free-trade agreement between the U.S. and countries of the region would benefit all, McCain added.

He spelt out this three-point agenda at the World Economic Forum Special Meeting on Economic Growth and Job Creation in the Arab World, which concluded on October 23 at the Dead Sea, Jordan. "Young Arabs want U.S. leadership and access to U.S. technology and investment," McCain pointed out.

President Barack Obama's rival in the 2008 election issued a stern warning to Syrian President Assad. "The Assad regime has spilled too much blood to remain in power. It should not assume that the international community will let it get away with mass murder." He also warned Iran not to try to hijack the Arab Spring.

Responding to the political olive branch, Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the 22-member League of Arab States (June 2001-June 2011), said: "Arabs have a lot of affection for the U.S., but there are many issues between the MENA (Middle East and North African) countries and the U.S."

Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Principal among those issues is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the question of UN recognition of a Palestinian state. "We need a solid, productive, equal relationship with the U.S.," Moussa said. He and other panellists welcomed the idea of a free-trade agreement between MENA countries and the U.S. He also called for a revival plan for Egypt in which the U.S. and the Gulf States would contribute money.
The relationship between the United States and the Arab world should be based on transparency, predictability and longevity, urged Anwar M. Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Several of the Arab panellists criticized the U.S. for adopting a double standard in its dealings with the Arab World, pointing to the 2006 Dubai Ports World affair in which American politicians blocked a UAE company from acquiring a British company that managed several U.S. ports.

Robert D. Hormats, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs, admitted that current U.S. fiscal problems would constrain Washington to limit financial aid to support the Arab Spring. However, he said that the U.S. Government will use new and innovative techniques to assist Arab countries, such as increasing opportunities for U.S. companies to invest in the region, and provide support for young Arab entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized businesses.

The Special Meeting ended with a call for action and radical change in the region's mindset. "In the Middle East, we need fewer leaders and more doers," said Habib Haddad, Chief Executive Officer of UAE's Wamda and a Co-Chair of the Special Meeting and a Young Global Leader. "We need to be ready to push all the buttons we have," he said. Haddad emphasized that the region needs more courageous investment. "It is not that the region doesn’t have money," he said, "it is how we leverage and use it."

Wamda is a platform created by Abraaj Capital, and its subsidiary Riyada Enterprise Development (RED), to facilitate entrepreneurship in the MENASA (Middle East North Africa & South Asia) region.
Education

Jordan's Queen Rania Al Abdullah spoke of how education and support for small businesses can unlock Arab youth potential. "Partnering with academia, NGOs and the private sector could reposition the Arab world as a hub of creativity and innovation. We have within our people all the potential and power to change our fate," she told participants in a plenary session on Addressing the Employment Challenge.
About one-quarter of young Arabs are unemployed, and the statistic is even higher among women, she said. That costs the region about 15 billion U.S. dollar, cripples communities, hinders development and frustrates an entire generation.

Although many young Arabs possess a dynamic entrepreneurial spirit, the prevalent belief is that traditional public sector jobs are the best route to stable, well-paid employment.

"We have to re-engineer the expectations of our children, instil in them the belief that there are no limits to their aspirations," she said. Education must be reformed so that young people learn the skills required by the job market: problem-solving, teamwork, communication and entrepreneurship.

Governments have a role in clearing red tape, while networks of investors must get involved with innovative funding for schools and start-ups and by offering internships and apprenticeships. "When we create one entrepreneur, they create three or four new jobs, sparking a chain reaction that seemingly does the impossible: create something out of nothing," said Queen Rania.

"We can all do more to encourage young people to take risks, to teach our children to see and foresee the next big opportunity, to nurture the next generation, to break assumptions and confound expectations," she added.

Improvements in people's lives

Translating the political changes of the Arab Spring into improvements in people's lives is the greatest challenge facing governments in the region today. "Unless ordinary people see tangible progress over the next three years, there will be a huge popular backlash," said Tony Blair, UN Middle East Quartet Representative, speaking on a panel about geopolitical trends.

Blair's sense of urgency was shared by former Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Moussa, who endorses proposals for a major international effort to support reform in the region and emphasized that such an effort must be designed to meet the particular needs of states emerging from the upheavals of the past year.

Nasser Sami Judeh, who recently stepped down as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Jordan, underscored the urgency: "Young people across the region have fought for change with their blood; we must find ways to meet their aspirations without more violence," he said.

One of the main demands of the Arab street is that its voice be heard and heeded. "People everywhere want to participate in decisions that affect their destiny and we should not expect things to be different in the Arab world" said Barham Salih, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraq.

Building a participatory system takes time, however. "Democracy is not just about voting, it is an attitude of mind that took centuries to evolve in the UK and cannot be achieved in a few weeks or even a few years," said Blair. "Elections are central and people must accept the outcomes," added Moussa.

As people in the Arab world strive for justice within their own societies, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue remains central to regional stability. Moussa stressed Egypt's commitment to finding a solution. "Peace between Israelis and Palestinians remains the foundation of our foreign policy" he said.

The former Arab League chief is a presidential candidate for the elections in Egypt, which are expected to take place in March or April 2012.

For Blair, the Arab Spring offers an opportunity to put the peace process on a more stable path: "It alters the positions of all sides and, in doing so, gives us a chance to make progress." Failure to do so will further complicate the regional picture, he warned.

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