How Should President Obama Change U.S. Policy in the Middle East?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor’s note: This article was published as part of a report by the Project on Middle East Democracy. Read the full report »

As Arab attitudes toward the United States are “inelastic,” anything short of a major policy overhaul—such as the tinkering on the margins that has so far defined the Obama administration—will not make much of a difference.

The issue of leverage and aid conditionality has become more relevant than ever in the post-Arab Spring era. The Obama administration’s proposed MENA Incentive Fund and the European Union’s Support for Partnership, Reform, and Inclusive Growth (SPRING) programs are both gentle nods in the direction of conditionality. The problem with both programs is how small in scope they are, totaling less than $1 billion annually across the region—simply not large enough to influence the political calculations of Arab governments.

With this in mind, there is a need to coordinate the funding of a “multilateral reform endowment” that would provide clear incentives to Arab countries to implement necessary reforms. The endowment would include a minimum of $5 billion, with the goal of increasing total available funding to $20 billion by 2022. Receiving aid would be conditional upon meeting a series of explicit, measurable benchmarks on democratization, which would be the product of extensive negotiations with interested countries. The endowment would be funded with contributions from the United States, the EU, allies like Japan, Qatar, and Norway, rising democracies such as Turkey and Brazil, as well as international financial institutions.

For transitional states like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, benchmarks would include security sector reform, military noninterference in civilian affairs, judicial independence, and ensuring press freedoms. For liberalizing monarchies like Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait, benchmarks would focus on expanding political space for opposition groups and the gradual devolution of power to elected institutions accountable to the people. Even if certain countries rejected endowment funds, an important message would still be sent to both Arab leaders and publics that democracy assistance is no longer half-hearted and ad-hoc, but part of an institutionalized, multilateral, and long-term effort to hold Arab governments accountable to a set of explicit standards.