On September 10, AARO was honored to have David Hamod, president and CEO of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC), speak about the current situation in the Middle East – not just the crises, but also the business outlook. His remarks were delivered in a personal capacity, not necessarily representing the official positions of NUSACC.
Tom Rose, former president of AARO, introduced Mr. Hamod, whom he first met when David served as U.S. representative of WFAA (World Federation of Americans Abroad). AARO was a Founding Member of WFAA, which focused on a wide range of issues affecting overseas Americans, including the Section 911 (foreign-earned income) exemption. He was then, and is still, a hands-on analyst and excellent lobbyist.
Lobbying, however, was not the subject of the evening. Mr. Hamod started with a tribute to AARO founder Phyllis Michaux, remembering her commitment to the Section 911 Coalition, the battle to allow local resident Americans to work in embassies, citizenship for our children born abroad, and counting Americans abroad in the U.S. Census. Many of those battles were won during the 1990s, when David supported AARO and WFAA in Washington. He also brought what he tongue-in-cheek called “artifacts” – like 25-year-old WFAA newsletters – for the AARO archives.
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David said that every time he thinks he's got the Middle East figured out, someone moves the goalposts. One of those goalposts was moved on September 11, 2001 and he spoke to us on September 10, the eve of that anniversary. 9/11 had a profound negative impact on US - Arab relations, he noted.
More recently, goalposts were moved again with the advent of Arab Spring movements, which created both winners and losers. Among the top winners, he suggested: the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, such as Qatar (host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup), Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (host of the World Expo 2020. But it hasn’t only been energy-producing countries that have “won” during the Arab Spring. David cited Morocco, for example, which has attracted high-tech investment from around the world, as well as retirement communities from around Europe, like French citizens. The Kurds, despite their challenges within Turkey, have boosted their chances of establishing a sovereign nation by distinguishing themselves on the battlefield against the Islamic State (aka Da’esh or ISIS). Tangentially related to the Arab Spring, Iran is poised to rejoin the community of nations, representing a potential “win.” Iran has a strong and well-educated diaspora, David feels, and a vigorous young population.
It pained him to say so, but David feels ISIS is also a “winner” through its brutal, inhuman exploits and its skillful manipulation of global media. ISIS has drawn upon disaffected former officers from Saddam Hussein's army, who were discharged after the fall of Saddam and the Ba’th Party, coupled with ideologues who are committed to returning to an ancient Caliphate. These two forces, in turn, have attracted impressionable and idealistic youth from throughout the Arab world and beyond who are lured by the spoils of war and the ability to send money back home to their families. The moderate country of Tunisia, for example, has about 3500 young people fighting for ISIS and other extremist groups. Some of these are hard-core ideologues, but David suspects that many were attracted to wartime Syria because it offered a paycheck. One pressing question is what will become of them when they attempt to return home. David suggested that ISIS functions like a business – with sales (oil & contraband), marketing (website recruitment), and just-in-time logistics – which often allows ISIS to stay one step ahead of more cumbersome governments.
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Among the “losers” of the Arab Spring, on the other hand, is Syria, which David feels can only be described as “tragic.” Iraq, too, is in deep and depressing conflict, one that may well create the next wave of refugees. David characterized Yemen today as the “wild, wild west,” with extremist groups carving out a foothold in different parts of the country.
In the pantheon of terrorist groups, Al Qaeda has lost ground to ISIS, and Al Qaeda might attempt some spectacular attacks in an effort to get back into the international limelight. In the same vein, the Taliban has lost ground following the death of its spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, resulting in a splintering of that terrorist organization.
The “biggest losers” of all, in David’s opinion, are refugees and asylum-seekers, who are willing to risk everything to start a new life. The flow of refugees that we are seeing today is “just the tip of the iceberg,” he suggested, and things are likely to get worse before they get better – including what he perceives to be the “inevitable backlash” against the refugees.
Americans have always felt a certain affinity with refugees, David noted, because the ethos of our nation is founded on the idea that everybody deserves a second chance. He cited immigrants coming to the United States historically for reasons of economic deprivation, religious persecution, political repression, or merely the simple prospect of finding a better life. David hopes that the US will “step up” and do more to help the refugees.
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In addition to “winners” and “losers,” there are certain “in between” countries in which the Arab Spring story is still being written. First among these, David noted, is Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring.
Tunisia is “doing all the right things,” including holding free and fair elections for the first time in its history. David said that Tunisia, despite facing many challenges in a “tough neighborhood,” is on track to succeed. Libya is going through tough times, but one encouraging development is the recent decision by two of the biggest militias to work together to fight the infiltration of ISIS. Libya is one of the most misunderstood places of the Arab world, in David’s estimation, but based on his observations during more than a dozen visits to that country, he said there is a wellspring of support for the United States in part as a result of America’s decision to take a stand against former strongman Muammar Gadhafi. Lebanon is a flashpoint: Roughly 25% of the population is now made up of refugees; the current garbage crisis has become a major government crisis; tourism from many nations has dried up. However, the Lebanese people are famously resilient, and David believes that they will pull through the current crisis. Egypt, the last of the “in between” nations, has generally restored stability, but perhaps at the expense of democracy, David opined.
The bottom line, according to David: “Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and revolutions make for even stranger ones.”
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has more than its fair share of strife, David suggested, but it is not the only place in the world facing internal challenges. He mentioned some of the more than 20 separatist movements around the world, including those in Europe. The biggest difference between what is happening in those nations and what is happening in the MENA region is the dearth of effective government institutions and civil society groups, which play a critical role in allowing citizens to “blow off steam.” If one mixes these together with weapons, tribes, proxy wars, and artificial colonial boundaries, pent-up frustrations are primed to blow sky high.
But in the Arab Spring, David said, “disruptive” need not translate into “destructive”. In the business community, disruptive technologies often drive innovation and create new products and markets. He hopes this will be the eventual outcome of the Arab Spring.
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David then turned his attention to the business front, highlighting the apparent disparity between challenging news politically and excellent news commercially. US exports to the MENA region have been doubling every four years, he said, and last year’s export numbers shattered all previous records. He attributes this to the fact that economic fundamentals remain strong: oil and gas equipment and services; defense and security; infrastructure development; consumerism, especially a strong demand for US brands. To these four economic drivers, David added two more “emerging” drivers: education, with American universities setting up local campuses in the MENA region, and healthcare, with US health systems (like Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Mayo, and others) setting up branches in the region.
David said he sometimes gets the question, “Why do they hate us?” This may come from Americans, he said, or it may come from Arabs. People-to-people relations are excellent, he suggested, and all things being equal, Arabs would rather send their children to American schools, be treated in American hospitals, buy American products, and work with American companies, where “what you see is what you get.” However, he suggested, there are times when the Arab world is disappointed by the United States – he cited Guantanamo, the Abu Ghraib prison, and other examples – because the Arab people expect the US to do the right thing, and we don't always do it. For Americans and Arabs, he said, perceptions are sometimes stronger than reality.
David concluded his remarks with a brief discussion of the Arab world’s youth who, in his eyes, “represent the future.” Young people in the MENA region today make up roughly 2/3 of the Arab world population. Since the advent of the Arab Spring, these youth have become “unafraid”: they take to the streets to effect change; they are “smart, switched on and connected”; they can take down governments. Leaders who do not listen to the youth do so at their own peril, he suggested.
With this in mind, David said, the top 3 priorities for any Arab leader must be “jobs, jobs, and more jobs” – which will help Arab youth to become invested in the economy, while also enabling them to put bread on the table. Apropos of this, David concluded his talk by quoting former Secretary of State Colin Powell: “Hope begins with a paycheck.”