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Developing a Winning Strategy for the Middle East

Why are business and interaction the keys to achieving the West’s objectives in the Middle East?

Order "Forces of Fortune" here.

Takeaways


  • Over time, the profit motive will be our strongest ally, as it will lead the Muslim world's growing middle class to push increasingly for business-friendly economic reform.
  • The only way Westerners will get less, rather than more, rejection and extremism is not with more sanctions and conflict — but with more business and interaction.
  • We in the West do ourselves a grave disservice by focusing with such disdain on expressions of devotion to Islam.
  • The new Middle East's rising middle class is going to be Islamic, conservative and all too often prudish and misogynist.
  • The rising business class in the Middle East does not stand against the West. Neither do they stand with the West.

The rising business class in the Middle East does not stand against the West. These pragmatic businesspeople do not in general express hatred for the United States, although many are irked by both U.S. support for Israel and the continuing support of dictators that stand in their way.

Neither do they, by and large, stand with the West. We should make no mistake in that regard. Their opinions are in tune with the mood in the Muslim world.

We have to face the fact that the new Middle East being reshaped by the rising middle class is going to be — at least in the short run — Islamic, conservative and all too often prudish and misogynist.

It is certainly not looking for advice or guidance from the West about which of its traditional values should be abandoned. But that does not mean that this middle class will not welcome reforms and that there is no desire among them to fight for more freedom and rights.

In Pakistan, the spontaneous eruption of the lawyers' movement stood up to dictatorship and brought tens of thousands of religious and secular Pakistanis to the streets. There were people in jeans and traditional shalwar kameez, day laborers, students, professionals and housewives, shoulder-to-shoulder in defense of democracy.

These protests were just about the only thing that had brought Pakistanis together as one nation for as long as many could remember. The world must take heed of this powerful expression of craving for democracy and the protection of liberal values among so many ordinary Pakistanis.

In Iran, for the past two years hundreds of thousands of women, and surprisingly also men — both religious and secular — have rallied behind the One Million Signatures campaign to demand rights for women in divorce, in child custody cases, at work, at home and in the labor market.

The movement energized civil society activism and collected its signatures in record time, and made women's rights a hot-button campaign issue in the 2009 presidential elections.

In June 2009, those fighting for women's rights joined hands with many more men and women of the middle class to form the Green Movement, so-called for the ubiquitous green headscarves and wristbands that all of a sudden seemed to be everywhere. The Movement was to mark support for Mir Hossein Moussavi's campaign, and to protest the outcome of the presidential elections and demand political freedoms and social reforms.

But such hopeful signs of political vitality, cutting across the religious-secular divide, could take time to bear fruit. That is to be expected. We know from the experience of the civil rights movement in the United States that change comes only slowly. There will be many hard-fought battles and setbacks.

The provincial lower and rising middle classes have been strong proponents of the institution of Islamic law in Egypt, the wearing of headscarves in Turkey, Islamic education in Pakistan and Islamic finance in Dubai.

These developments may strike some as setbacks, as signs of the culture of the Middle East moving in the wrong direction. But we in the West do ourselves a grave disservice by focusing with such disdain on these expressions of devotion to Islam. There is little evidence that the growing conservatism of Muslim societies is a bar to fighting for freedom and prosperity — one need not look any farther than Turkey.

Those in the teeming lower classes — but also many among the rising middle class — especially will not be won over by a culture war. As long as those in the lower classes feel their core values are under assault by the West, they will continue to rally to their own hard-line culture warriors. If this happens, moderates will lose.

At the end of the day, after sanctions and conflicts, the only way we will get less, rather than more, rejection and extremism — fewer rather than more Ahmadinejads or Qaradawis — is not with more sanctions and conflict but with more business and interaction.

We can contain the aggression of those countries we perceive as threats by going to war — as costly as wars may be — but if we really want to change those countries, then we must do more, rather than less, business with them.

Over time, the profit motive will be our strongest ally. It will lead the growing middle class to push increasingly for business-friendly economic reform and the reliable rule of law, as well as the opening up of their economies to trade with the world.

They will push with increasing clout for good government, just as the business communities in India and China have forced the hands of their governments in instituting wide-ranging reforms and opening up to the global economy. Of course, not every corner of the Muslim world is ready for business, but by achieving success where possible, we can strengthen first movers who can then lead the rest.

The new Middle Eastern middle class is still comparatively small. Its numbers do not equal those of China and India — not even where those countries were ten years ago.

The great transformation in the Middle East is just beginning, but let us not forget that all great transformations start small, and they are driven by trends that are little noticed before they gather full steam.

The economic and social changes that I have pointed to tell of the strong potential for a very different future for the region than the one imagined by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Osama bin Laden. There is no question that the balance of power in the Middle East is for now decided by hard power, but the signs for the future are that it will be recalibrated by economics.

More must be done to stimulate the growth of the commercial sector, building ties through trade, in order for the pressure for reform from within the society to lend the necessary force to the West's efforts. This is what the businessmen all around the region would counsel must be the way forward in the entire region.

What sanctions and isolations are achieving, however, is making it more difficult for commerce to flourish, and the historical force that alone can change the Middle East to start that process in the one country that perhaps matters most. As goes Iran so will the Middle East, so we had better take good care where we send Iran.

When in March 2009 Tahrik-e Taliban (Pakistan's homegrown Taliban) brazenly attacked a police academy outside Lahore, killing several recruits and leaving little doubt that extremism was determined to take down the Pakistani government, I called an old friend in the city to see how he was and what had happened.

My friend is a big businessman, with holdings in textiles and food products, U.S.-educated but also religious. "They are murdering this country one bullet at a time," he told me forlornly.

"What can be done?" I asked. "I don't know what we can do," he responded, "but I know what you can do [referring to America]. Lift all those tariffs and that will help." He had explained to me many times before, "Grow the economy and the rest will sort itself out."

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from FORCES OF FORTUNE by Vali Nasr, published by Free Press. Copyright 2010 Vali Nasr. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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