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This is the revolution in the Middle East that President Obama is missing
Published: Apr 6, 2016 11:02 a.m. ET
This entrepreneurial revolution doesn’t fit with Americans’ violent, one-dimensional view of the region
President Obama’s expansive foreign policy interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has generated enormous controversy both within Washington and in foreign capitals, as America’s longtime friends and allies recoil at the president’s insinuation that they are “free riders” on American security.
Yet Free Ridergate has effectively given a pass to an even more revealing statement from the president. In justifying his pivot away from the Middle East, Obama contrasted it with the positive example of Southeast 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.”
This comparison, shockingly uninformed, says far more about the blind spot in Obama’s worldview than it does about either Asia or the Middle East.
There is an entrepreneurial revolution happening in the Middle East that doesn’t fit with the violent, one-dimensional view of the region that Americans like President Obama hold. 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.
With its strict Shariah law and a stubborn prohibition on women driving, most people don’t see Saudi Arabia as a vanguard of innovation. Yet the Kingdom is quietly becoming a hub for the dynamic and positive change that is swelling up throughout the region—with the full support of the highest levels of Saudi government.
A recent trip to Riyadh included a visit to the Prince Mohamed bin Salman Foundation (known by the acronym MiSK), a state-funded incubator for startups that seeks to instill in young Saudis—both women and men—the skills necessary for entrepreneurial success.
Many of these lessons might be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Silicon Valley, including things like how to pitch funders, and perfecting the art of the TED Talk, which Saudi youth start early—MiSK organizes [email protected], where girls and boys as young as 9 make polished presentations to an audience of thousands. The MiSK program also includes coaching on surmounting the cultural obstacles that are more unique to a conservative Arab society, like traditional stigmas surrounding failure or taking an unconventional path.
While the MiSK example might sound like a one-off that can’t scale to broader societal transformation, the data show otherwise. HSBC’s Essence of Enterprise report , released in March, revealed that the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia have the highest proportion of millennial entrepreneurs in the world, at 63%, with the average age for starting a business being just 26. Surveys show young business leaders are “more focused on how they can benefit the broader community” rather than merely enriching themselves. Entrepreneurs under 35 also tend to create more than twice as many jobs as older business leaders, with each millennial startup employing an average of 123 people.
Furthermore, young entrepreneurs in the Middle East are more gender-equitable. According to the The Economist , women make up 35% of the region’s tech entrepreneurs. They are even outpacing their sisters in the U.S., where, as the Kauffman Foundation reports, only 3% of tech startups are women-led.
Arab entrepreneurs are having real impact— and attracting real investment. Souq.com , the Arab world’s answer to eBay, has achieved unicorn valuation at more than $1 billion . It also offers previously unavailable market access to more than 75,000 individuals and small retailers, enabling sales and livelihoods that simply wouldn’t otherwise exist.
The positive knock-on effects of Arab entrepreneurs are real and accelerating. As noted in the Economic Recovery and Revitalization report of Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, more than 2,500 jobs are generated for every 10 successful startups in the region, providing a lifeline to cash-strapped governments that can no longer afford to create cushy government jobs-as-welfare in the age of $40 oil
In explaining his desire to turn away from the Middle East, President Obama noted, “If we’re not talking to [young Asians and Africans and Latin Americans] because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”
Yet sadly, in his blindness to the swelling tide of young entrepreneurs in the Middle East, President Obama makes it clear that for this administration, the ship has already sailed.
Jessica Ashooh is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force.
Also read: Osama bin Laden’s big investment idea was gold
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