Getting Real About Funding Mideast Reform

May 21, 2011

The ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa will not be resolved without economic reform in the region, President Obama said in his speech on Mideast issues at the State Department on Thursday.

"Politics alone has not put protesters into the streets," he said. "The tipping point for so many people is the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family."

His proposals include debt relief and private investment to support America's objective of promoting reform across the region — aspirations that must confront the economic realities of the Middle East in order to succeed.

Economic factors were a crucial spark in the beginning of the uprisings, Georgetown University's Samer Shehata tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "In Tunisia, you had unemployment of about 15 percent," he says. Youth unemployment, he adds, is three times as high.

In Egypt, Shehata continues, 40 percent of the population is living at or below poverty. Like many other Middle Eastern countries, Egypt faces rampant corruption, cronyism and increasing income inequality, too. And across the region, he says, decades of oil-fueled oligarchies must still be removed before economic investment can turn the region around.

That kind of change may require more investment than the president is offering, Shehata says.

"Many people have spoken about an Arab martial fund," he says, a vehicle that would include tens of billions of dollars in aid — "not simply limited debt relief, to really make an impact on many of these countries."

Yet it's not all about economics, for protesters in the streets of Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, even as their demonstrations — and the subsequent reactions of oppressive regimes — may contribute to instability and a lack of economic investment in the region.

"It has to be emphasized," Shehata says, "the Palestinian issue is an issue that affects people in the Arab world at the level of identity." That's a factor that's not appreciated well enough in the U.S., he thinks.

The instability caused by an endless Israel-Palestine conflict has sometimes been used as an excuse for a lack of economic development in the region, he says. Theoretically, economic development shouldn't necessarily require a peaceful relationship between the two, "but there's no question a resolution would only be good economically as well." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit