The call for economic liberty in the Arab world

The uprisings that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa since 2010 have forever altered the region’s political and security landscape. They have also called into question longstanding U.S. policies toward the Arab world. Yet this unrest also presents an historic opportunity to advance reforms that will economically empower millions of people and ultimately help stabilize the region.
 

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Generations of citizens in Arab countries have been forced to endure human rights abuses and political repression. It would therefore be easy to mistake the Arab Spring for a political uprising. But it was not speeches by long-suffering opposition leaders in exile that drove millions of people to the streets. From Sidi Bouzid to Tahrir Square, the protests were driven by young men and women — students, street vendors, and would-be entrepreneurs — demanding the opportunity for a better economic future.
 
In a political transition, aid donors have historically focused on strengthening political parties, organizing elections, writing constitutions, drafting laws and reforming security forces. But what happens when the motives for a popular uprising are as much economic as they are political? If we fail to consider the economic causes of the Arab Spring — which can be traced to a lack of legal protections for personal property, endemic corruption and other constraints to economic growth — no amount of U.S. foreign assistance will bring stability to the region.
 
We need a major shift in how we view this revolutionary change if we are going to effectively respond. Unfortunately, overcoming the constraints to economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa is not going to be easy. It is not simply about getting good laws on the books. In many cases, reasonable commercial and personal property rights already exist on paper. But all too often, these laws do not materialize in practice.
 
Building strong institutions grounded in the rule of law is important, but ensuring that individuals have the knowledge and means to exercise their rights is perhaps even more critical.
 
The renowned Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, in coordination with business and political leaders from the Middle East and North Africa, has offered a compelling roadmap forward. He argues that “no amount of money Western nations or investors transfer to [Middle Eastern and North African] countries can ever come close to the economic potential locked up in the entrepreneurial aspirations of their people.” To unlock that potential — and contribute to stability in the region — the U.S. should focus its efforts on establishing legal protections for property rights and private business.
 
On Tuesday morning at 9:30, de Soto, along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, will take part in an important House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that will examine how the United States and other nations can help advance economic empowerment and stability to the millions yearning for it in the Middle East.
 
With more than $1.5 billion in U.S. foreign assistance already mobilized to support democratic transitions in the region, I sure hope the Obama administration will be watching. 


Royce is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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