The case for reform and economic progress in the Middle East

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While the world remains transfixed by the Arab Spring sweeping across the Middle East, the United States has the opportunity to substantively demonstrate its commitment to reform and reformers in the strategically important region. The road ahead is undoubtedly tumultuous; elections will be organized, new governments formed and stabilized; national laws and constitutions rewritten and social contracts between governments and their governed will be reassessed.

With the uncertainty that lingers in the potential outcome of these processes, we cannot overstate the importance of supporting and delivering transparent and accountable governance to the people of the Middle East, while providing greater economic opportunity to millions of people in the region. Next month, with this objective in mind, the U.S. Chamber will take a large delegation of U.S. firms to Egypt and another to Iraq, as we demonstrate our support for Egypt’s political transition and Iraq’s reconstruction. The success of both countries will reverberate positively throughout the entire region.

More must be done now to shore up both countries’ nascent democracies by creating the enabling environment for private sector growth and employment generation.

These examples underscore a stark regional reality: Globalization’s positive aspects have largely eluded many in North Africa and the Middle East. These societies are demographically inclined to reform and are where the un- and under-employed youth yearn for a brighter future. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that in Egypt alone, young people constitute 80 percent of the unemployed workforce — while 95 percent of them have at least a secondary education degree.

What can the U.S. business community do to support positive change in the Middle East? First, we can reinforce reforms that work to open new possibilities on the commercial front and enhance the welfare of the people. If the region’s new governments find organizing the first election following the end of autocracy hard, the second election will be even harder — unless those countries’ entrepreneurial forces are free to generate jobs and opportunities that provide hope and a stake in a stable new system. American business can contribute.

Second, we encourage the people of the Middle East to work toward creating stability in the governing structures and to ensure respect for the rule of law. Without these, domestic businesses will crumble — and foreign investors and capital will flow to opportunities in more commercially attractive markets.

Third, the Middle East can underscore prosperity for their people through sound economic policies and practices promoting foreign investment and commerce.

Freer trade with the region has fueled economic growth and has led to large-scale infrastructure development and job creation throughout the Middle East. U.S. companies, large and small, and across all sectors, have been working with the people and private sector throughout the Middle East for decades. These partnerships have helped integrate Middle Eastern countries into the global economy, which — along with the right government policies and trade practices — can enable nations to achieve even higher and more broadly shared levels of sustained growth. Yet much remains to be done. The Middle East and North Africa stand to gain from aggressively pursuing the economic reforms that have begun in some countries. Moreover, lowering barriers to business start-ups, pursuing property rights reforms, and encouraging a more open trade regime will have lasting benefits.

Each day’s headlines caution us that it is too soon to know what the political ramifications of this tectonic shift will be. But we do know that when emotions calm, when the streets clear, governments alone won’t be the ones that put people back to work — that task will fall to the private sector.

Commercial ties with the U.S. — with the personal interchange that it involves, and the mutual economic interests that it develops — help to forge a strong civil society connection via shared values. In many cases, private sector relationships have a persistence that government regimes don’t always have, lasting decades, developing and evolving as new commercial opportunities emerge.

The aspiration to grow jobs and opportunity marks the path to progress and is the foundation of American economic engagement: across the new Middle East, if we want to help the region’s new governments deliver on the promise of democracy, it’s important to remember that business is a central and critical element of civil society.

Myron Brilliant is Senior Vice President for International Affairs and Lionel C. Johnson is Vice President for Middle East Affairs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.