Boosting Smart Power: The Role of the United States in the Middle East

Navtej Dhillon
Navtej Dhillon Former Brookings Expert

February 22, 2008

When it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East, democracy and the war on terrorism trump economic development, revealing a fatal disconnect between U.S. actions and the aspirations of the majority of young people in the region. With over 60% of the population in the Middle East under the age of 30, the main challenge for the United States is not to lose this generation while it tries to win the war on terror.

Iran is your problem, President Bush told Arab leaders on his recent trip to the Middle East. Economic development is our core concern rebutted Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai. When promoting democracy, President Bush reached out to Arab youth depicting them as oppressed citizens and tomorrow’s radicals; when rallying against Iran, he looked to the country’s youth as potential allies in regime change. Far from liberating Middle Eastern youth, the United States has made them hostage to international politics.

Most Middle Eastern youth have had their perceptions of America shaped by the events of the last eight years: 9/11; the war on terror and Islamic extremism; the stalemate on the Arab-Israeli conflict; the Iraq and Lebanon war. Young people find themselves portrayed in the West in the grip of fundamentalist ideology and a source of security threat.

However, between the struggles of terrorism and democracy, there is another fight which consumes the lives of millions of youth: the fight for decent education, employment and housing. In the Middle East, youth unemployment rates are nearly twice the world average (25% versus 14%), and queuing time for a first job is measured in years rather than months. Education, which in other regions is a way to secure jobs, fails to do the same in the Middle East. Furthermore, a large majority of youth end up living with their parents well into their twenties, and delay marriage despite greater social taboos for relationships outside marriage.

President Bush’s signature initiative to promote economic reforms in the Middle East provides approximately $120 million in grants. The recent arms deal with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states which amounted to $20 billion dwarfs U.S. efforts to improving the living standards of ordinary citizens.

Economic development can no longer be an adjunct to U.S. security. The international community must recognize that the Middle East is at a critical juncture. It is experiencing an unprecedented oil boom, with prices nearing $100 per barrel and a demographic boon in the form of a large youth population. With the right policies, this double dividend can usher greater prosperity and stability in the Middle East and the world.

But if Middle Eastern governments fail to use their current economic turnaround for the benefit of their young citizens, the double dividend will quickly turn into a double jepordary. This would have dire consequences: poorly distributed and invested oil revenues could contribute to a large and inefficient public sector, rising levels of inequality, and a disappointing economic performance. A large youth cohort without jobs, economic opportunity or hope could help brew increased frustration and be a source of tension for the region.

The new U.S. President must cast the country’s relationship with the region on broader terms than those dictated by security concerns. This calls for a shift in our discourse and policy from the fight against radicalism to building a future for the majority; from using hard power to boosting smart power.

The next administration should start by recognizing that the chasm in U.S.-Middle East relations has emerged amidst greater convergence in ideas and aspirations. Triggered by a large youth cohort, the Middle East is undergoing change where it is aligning with the fundamental drivers of globalization. The region has embraced the idea of market economy; it values education and civic participation is on the rise. Middle Eastern youth ascribe to the fundamental pro-growth norms of behavior such as hard work and high investment in children, including girls. These are all areas where the United States is a leader. As the country with the world’s best record in harnessing the energy of youth, there is much the United States can offer the Middle East in terms of ideas. It did this in past when the U.S. educational system provided the region with great institutions of higher education—American Universities of Beirut and Cairo—which have produced many of the region’s leaders.

With the risks of oil resources depleting and the working population aging, the Middle East has a narrow window of opportunity to build a lasting foundation for economic prosperity and peace.