Each country’s trajectory is different, and their transformation into free-market democracies is not assured. Resurgent authoritarianism and descent into civil war are but two of the most potent challenges. Festering socioeconomic ills, most notably high youth unemployment, also threaten to derail the region’s fragile transitions. In Egypt alone, an estimated one million new entrants will join the labor force over the next 15 months, while the economy is likely to only generate 300,000 new jobs.


Some in the region, including Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League and Hassan al-Boraei, Egypt’s labor minister, have already invoked the need for an “Arab Marshall Plan” to tackle the region’s myriad challenges. Not surprising since the Marshall Plan—instrumental in Europe’s post-World War II recovery—stands out as a successful blueprint for addressing the complex, multi-dimensional challenges associated with regional transformation. Yet, neither the U.S. nor Europe can afford the massive aid flows that underpinned the Marshall Plan’s success.  Instead, the oil-rich Arab Gulf, together with powerful emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and Turkey, will need to shoulder much of this burden.
Yet the real genius behind the Marshall Plan was not simply money; it was its vision for a new, prosperous Europe built on innovation and partnership.  Reflecting this ethos of the Marshall legacy, a broad strategy to foster free-market democracies could similarly transform the Arab world. This strategy should distill the Marshall Plan’s key elements–multilateral partnerships; collective problem-solving; innovative ideas; an integrated approach that recognizes the interplay of politics, economics and security; and a particular focus on building regional economic integration.
Specifically, a Marshall-inspired strategy for the Arab world would seek to lay the foundations for successful political and economic transitions. It would build strong partnerships between the United States, Europe, emerging economies, and the Arab world. In particular, to secure their financing, the Gulf countries would necessarily need to be included as equals in any strategic discussions.
This multi-dimensional strategy would also cultivate the new thinking germinating in the region. It would seek to harness the region’s indigenous innovative spirit which played such an important role in propelling the Arab Spring from Tunis and Tahrir Square. Indeed, it was Twitter’s use during Egypt’s 2008 labor strikes that first alerted its inventors to the real power of their microblogging service. Reaching out to these newly-empowered constituencies will be critical in the months ahead. An active dialogue between the international community and the Arab world would nurture and enhance a two-way flow of ideas to promote creative solutions to the region’s challenges.
A holistic approach that focuses on political change, economic growth and regional security would begin to redress the region’s pressing problems. Promoting intra-regional trade—currently only a fraction of its potential—as well as regional trade with global markets would tap the synergies that straddle economic development and security. Facilitating small and medium enterprises would fuel a critical, untapped engine of job growth. Demonstrating the concrete benefits of private sector growth would begin to win over Arab publics who currently view economic liberalization with deep suspicion given decades of crony capitalism. Developing strategies for enhancing the rule of law, civil-military transitions, and good governance would further enhance the region’s prospects.
As the fallout of a poor Tunisian vendor’s audacious act of defiance continues to rock the Arab world, the region, in partnership with the global community, should respond with equal boldness with an overarching strategy based on innovation, partnership, and growth that will ensure that the Arab world finally realizes its vast potential.
Mona Yacoubian directs Pathways to Progress: Peace, Prosperity, and Change in the Middle East, a joint initiative of the George C. Marshall Foundation and the Stimson Center.