US Must Shift Paradigm Away From Its Current View of Arab World

It cannot be lost on any informed observer of the Arab world that the tremendous political momentum of the past week, although spontaneous, is focused, reasoned and democratic. Protests are not popping up sporadically anywhere in the Arab world. No, rather, they are manifesting themselves in countries whose regimes are staunchly pro-Western. This reality explains the ambivalence of the Obama administration. Considering the significance of these world-changing events, it is important to explain why this is the case, so as to ameliorate fears based on myths or the unknown. Although these movements are directed against pro-Western regimes, they are not about the West. They are about the accountability of Arab governments; they are about jobs and, ultimately, the democratic will of the Arab peoples.

Over the last decade, the American understanding of the Arab world has severely deteriorated. The American narrative has been dominated by concerns over the so-called rise of “extremists” and “Islamists,” while our policies have become increasingly imprudent regarding Israel and oil. As is well-known, in the name of securing Israel and oil, the West has preferred stability over democracy. We could legitimately ask why securing Israel or oil means contravening democracy in the Arab world, but, for the moment, let us indulge in a more pragmatic analysis. For example, even if the United States continues to insist on its unqualified support for Israel, does American support for dictatorial regimes assist in that effort? My answer is, unequivocally, no, for such support is based on an extremely vacuous conceptual understanding of the region. We have, for the worse, adopted Israel’s understanding of the region, wherein the Arabs are constantly seen as “Islamists in waiting” and of course, by extension, as “terrorists.”

Well, for the average Arab, who is around 30 years old, university educated and unemployed, this approach to the region is completely meaningless. But the United States operates according to this false understanding: resources are distributed, alliances are made and authoritarian regimes are supported. Quite simply, we support police states and do not even exhibit a concern for the development of Arab civil society. This approach is literally ensuring the inevitable downfall of pro-Western regimes. While the Arab world must create 40 million jobs in the next 20 years, the US continues to sign multi-billion dollar arms deals that contribute to the militarization of the region, not the development of civil society and civic unity. The discord between Arab needs and Western approaches could not be brought into sharper relief. Let me give you some real, tangible examples of how US policy actually undermines US allies.

In 2007, Jordan discovered 65,000 tons of uranium in its desert, making it the 11th largest repository of uranium in the world. Up until now, Jordan has had to import nearly 95 percent of its electricity while depending on various economic aid packages to remain afloat.

With the discovery, King Abdullah II announced plans to undergo a leading role in nuclear power production in the region, affirmed intentions to rebuild the Hejaz railway and industrialize Amman. The discovery assures Jordan a leading position amongst Arab states, as well as jobs for its booming population, one of the fastest-growing in the world. Jordan has a literacy rate of around 90 percent, and 70 percent of this well-educated population is under 30 years of age, making it a demographic ensured of a future. But there is one problem: the US and Israel are inhibiting Jordan from enriching their own uranium. A staunchly pro-Western regime, Israel fears the idea of any Arab country enriching uranium (although it is an international right), and this fear has been adopted by the US.

Hobbes helped us understand monarchies like Jordan. If Jordanians accept an unelected leader, such as a king, they must get something in return. That is the basis of the king’s legitimacy. Pressuring the king to suppress efforts in his country’s own interest delegitimizes him. The average Jordanian feels that the monarchy is subverting its international and political right to uplift the country through enrichment simply to accommodate Israeli and American paranoia. In this light, the words of former Israeli minister of justice Yossi Beilin that, “Israel is creating a new enemy for itself, the Kingdom of Jordan” become all the more understandable. And now, the king of Jordan has announced the dissolution of his cabinet, an ominous sign for those who approach the region according to the fear paradigm.

Jordan’s demographics are much like Egypt’s, the country of the moment, except on a smaller scale, and in Egypt the same formula has historically been applied. Mubarak was tolerated so long as he fulfilled his part of the contract, but, over the last decade, he degenerated into a full-blown mob boss while we looked the other way.

Half of the population of Egypt is 30 years old or younger, yet 90 percent of the unemployed are from that demographic. The future of Egypt has no future. Yet, the West has simply dismissed the realities, concerns and well-being of those young men and women. The average Egyptian is concerned with jobs and with providing for his or her family. Yet the Western narrative of the region treats the average Arab has an unindicted “potential menace”; therefore, we offer unbridled support to police states at the expense of creating jobs. Pro-Western Arab states have literally become little more than large-scale jails to accommodate Western fears of “the Arab street,” but the “street” in Egypt could not be louder or clearer about what its concerns are – they are for its own well-being, not for Israel’s or America’s.

Mubarak’s seemingly futile appointment of Omar Suleiman as vice president confirms the ideological understanding of the region. Suleiman was in charge of Egypt’s notorious and brutal intelligence service; he is not known for much else by the Egyptians. Yet, Suleiman is well respected in the West and in Israel.

It became obvious quite quickly that the cosmetic change of Suleiman’s appointment would not satisfy the will of the Egyptian people, so the administration has withdrawn its support for Mubarak, yet the administration is still only reluctantly limping to the podium of democracy. Why? Because it does not possess the requisite understanding of the region to offer a fundamentally different approach. The Obama administration simply does not know what to do, and their incompetence is due to their false and superficial paradigms. It is apparently impossible for US advisers to understand that jobs are the issue – whether in Egypt or in Gaza – and jobs are a universal, nonideological concern. The lack of American understanding, quite frankly, stinks of racism. The Arabs are more feared than communicated with. This is disappointing, particularly with the presidency of Obama that began with so much hope, especially in Cairo. The US would be wise in reminding itself that all leaders, whether elected or not, do eventually face accountability, and our legacy in the region will be attached to its fate if we continue to attach ourselves to it.