Obama’s remarks fuel misperceptions about Arab youth

Sunday 01/05/2016
Emiratis look at technology exhibits at the Museum of the Future, an innovation exhibition at the World Government Summit in Dubai on February 10, 2016.

Jessica Ashooh, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, took aim at comments about Arab youth made by US President Barack Obama in his interview in the Atlantic. While decrying the overall dismal state of the political life in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the president remarked that Arabs, frankly, were not up to par with their counterparts in South-East Asia, which, he said, “is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure”.

While the president is, of course, entitled to his opinions, given his stature, these somehow get translated into truth. In this case, his comments support stereotypes that disparage a generation of Arabs who are often engaged in a significant struggle to create value, jobs and acquire a decent quality of life. It feeds into the common misperceptions that somehow “Arabs” do not share American interests in the MENA region.

Yet, time and time again, from the high level of cooperation in joint military exercises to the multitude of education, training, capacity-building and entrepreneurship projects the United States supports, Americans find significant alignment with their friends from Morocco and Jordan to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), many of them working in the private sector. Despite that being a “friend of America” entitles you to be on the Islamic State (ISIS) hit list, youth throughout the Arab world are actively engaged in challenging the status quo and building quality life options.

Contrast what Obama had to say with a recent World Bank blog posting: “As you walk through the ancient market in Fez or that of any other medina in Morocco, pass a vibrant hair salon in downtown Casablanca with the feel of a beauty mega-factory, or see young people on a street corner in Rabat waiting to be picked up for a day job in construction, you cannot but be impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit on display. The young people hard at work across the country are part of a huge army of Moroccan youth, many of whom have less than secondary school degrees, stuck in the informal sector with limited opportunities for a good, steady income.”

Throughout the MENA region, the vast majority of Arab youth are striving to find the means to acquire skills, financing, partnerships and access to markets that will change their futures for the better. As Ashooh writes: “Beyond the noise of the ISIS horror show, young Arabs are seeking education and starting companies at record levels, using technology to improve not only their personal prospects but also their societies.”

Morocco and Jordan as well as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia provide a multitude of examples of start-ups nurtured with resources backing entrepreneurial teams working in collaboration to redefine how technology can benefit sectors from small farms to complex information systems. Combined with increased investments in renewable energy and improved health services, opportunities for enhancing quality of life in these countries are increasing daily.

Governments are sensing that their key role is to encourage rather than regulate how entrepreneurism should evolve by listening to youth and their allies in the private sector to stimulate and abet the success of start-ups. With increased access to early and second stage financing, business fairs to demonstrate new applications and technologies and increased attention from private investors, youth are reaching for opportunities that simply did not exist five years ago.

There are multiple examples of how technology can be applied by those with a less formal education in areas such as agriculture, hospitality services, small-scale energy, home and health care and artisanal crafts. Opportunities are accessible to previously illiterate village women, poorly educated rural youth and those enmeshed in the informal economy. It is about options; it is about change. Remarkably, women make up about 35% of those leading start-ups in the Arab world, ten times the ratio of women-led tech start-ups in the United States.

So, if Obama wants to see what the majority of MENA youth are focusing on, he should visit one of the dozens of tech fairs that take place each year in Morocco, Jordan or the GCC or travel to incubators that are borne of university-private sector partnerships. He should listen to the aspirations of those who every day are striving to make a difference in their lives and their communities. These serve as strong and enduring complements to the vast sums spent on countering violent extremism programmes. Both are essential to sustaining our partnerships in the MENA region.