x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Obama seen as key to US-Arab ties

Troubles during the Bush administration inspired one man in Doha to compile a report on NGOs aimed at fostering Arab-West understanding.

Hady Amr's think tank's forum on Barack Obama's Cairo speech was popular with Muslim youth.
Hady Amr's think tank's forum on Barack Obama's Cairo speech was popular with Muslim youth.

Doha // If fostering understanding between Muslims and the West is a defining objective of our time, Hady Amr seems well suited to the task. "I've spent my whole life bouncing between the Arab world and the United States," said the 42-year-old Lebanese-American director of the Brookings Doha Centre. "Much of that time was spent explaining the US to Arabs and explaining Arabs to the US. And I have to say, things have never been so bad as they were during the Bush US presidency administration."

That low point inspired Mr Amr's latest report, which focuses on improving relations between Muslims and the United States - relations troubled by terrorism, two wars and combative US policies since the September 11 attacks. Released last week, "The Opportunity of the Obama Era: Can Civil Society Help Bridge Divides Between the United States and a Diverse Muslim World?" analyses nearly two dozen non-governmental initiatives intended to foster understanding in the post-September 11 world.

"The positive thing was that there was a lot of engagement, people did step up," Mr Amr said. "The bad news is that many did not do so well." Common problems included a lack of data, vague objectives and a tendency to lecture rather than engage. "If people feel they are being listened to, they are more willing to listen to you," Mr Amr said. He pointed to the Bush administration-created Arabic-language TV station, Al Hurrah. "Efforts like that, the one-way projection efforts - on both sides - have been a failure."

The Barack Obama team hopes to avoid such failures. "Our goal is to listen more and discover new ways that we can work as partners," the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said last week at the Forum for the Future conference in Marrakech, Morocco. "We will seek to work with all of you in government and civil society to try to build local capacity, and empower local organisations and individuals, to create sustainable change."

Along with economic and interfaith projects, Mrs Clinton launched Civil Society 2.0, a new US government programme that will send technology experts to the Middle East and North Africa to train organisations in new media and web technologies. Also in Marrakech, Joseph LeBaron, the US ambassador to Qatar, announced a women's empowerment programme with the Qatar Foundation and a Qatari-US student exchange programme to be introduced next month.

Mr Amr said he hopes these programmes foster engagement and create positive results. "The key ingredients of success are joint partnerships and effective monitoring," he said. He cited Soliya, a New York-based non-profit organisation that connects Muslims from the Middle East and western students via new media and technologies such as the internet, as a good example of partnership in which both sides participate and contribute.

One of the most effective initiatives in terms of monitoring has been the US state department's Access Microscholarship programme, which has instructed more than 32,000 non-elite Muslim high-school students in English and US culture. "They survey not only the student receiving the instruction," Mr Amr said, "but his friends, parents, and classmates". Even with successful programmes, long-term change is impossible to control. Any understanding these programmes engender risk being reversed by current events. Last week, for instance, Mrs Clinton sparked Arab ire by stating that a halt to Israeli settlements should not be a pre-condition for talks to resume the Middle East peace process, a stark reversal of previous statements by Mr Obama. She later backtracked, but the damage had been done.

"Bridge-building efforts are never good enough to negate bad policy," admitted Mr Amr, who served with the department of defence in the Clinton administration. "You don't get repeat customers when you're selling crap. But we have a president now that offers us a real opportunity." Despite the flip-flop on Israel, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Mr Obama's failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, Mr Amr still believes this US president offers real hope.

"His Cairo speech inspired the largest event so far at Brookings Doha," Mr Amr said, referring to a discussion his think tank hosted after Mr Obama's widely lauded June speech in Cairo. "We were turning people away at the door. People were totally energised, particularly the younger people - and that's 60 to 70 per cent in this region." Are all those Muslim youth - and their leaders - responding to the call for dialogue? Mr Amr sees mixed results. "Here in Qatar we have Education City, the Doha Debates, even my organisation, Brookings Doha," said. "The wealthy Gulf states have provided an amazing space for young Arabs in particular to come and live and work in a relatively free sociological space."

For the most part, however, Arab countries have seen minimal political change and little economic development. "There's a great deal of frustration across the Arab world, but the key problem is the lack of jobs," said Mr Amr, urging the US to engage civil society, not corrupt and autocratic governments. He recommended programmes that foster entrepreneurialism, which can help foster democratic ideals, and a scholarship programme that targets the poor. "You're creating social mobility so you can have somebody running for president that's not the son of the president."

Whether it is student exchange programmes, online networks, women empowerment initiatives or conferences on culture and religion, the time to act, Mr Amr said, has arrived: "Having a president that wants to serve as a bridge between the US and the Muslim World, we need to seize the opportunity now." dlepeska@thenational.ae