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Opinion: Sparking entrepreneurship in the Middle East

A new back channel has opened in US-Arab relations, one that's about doing business from the bottom on up.

The 99 cover shot
Cover shot from an early edition of "The 99," a comic book series whose storyline, according to its creator Naif al-Mutawa, is inspired by the universal values inherent in Islam. On the right, "Noora the Light" (alias Dana Ibrahim, 18, extremely wealthy female from Dubai) has the ability to see the light of truth in others and allow them to see it in themselves. Many in the Arab world see Naif al-Mutawa as an entrepreneurial role model. (Teshkeel Media Group)

BOSTON — In the last decade, the dialogue between the U.S. and the Arab Muslim world has focused on radical Islam, terror, security, profiling and, occasionally, oil.

Those topics still dominate media coverage, but since President Barack Obama’s 2009 “new beginning” speech in Cairo, a new back channel has opened — entrepreneurship. It’s a topic that both sides embrace, for similar reasons, and it’s a topic that has the potential to reframe the relationship the U.S. and the Arab world in positive fashion.

Both the U.S. and Arab countries see rampant unemployment among Middle East youth — 60 percent of whom are under 25, and more than 25 percent of whom are unemployed — as a major contributor to social unrest that often leads to radicalization and terrorist leanings. Both sides recognize that new grassroots, business formation is the best chance to break this cycle — and both sides recognize the cultural and bureaucratic hurdles that make entrepreneurship so difficult.

The first Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington last April attracted more than 275 Muslims from 50 countries. The summit was little noticed in the U.S., overshadowed by business-as-usual domestic political squabbling.

But it was a big deal in the Arab Muslim world. In May, at the Ashoka Arab World Social Innovation Forum in Cairo, which attracted hundreds of practitioners and academics from all over the Middle East and North Africa, speaker after speaker referred back to the summit and looked forward to the next one, to be held in Turkey next spring.

The speakers had no illusions that sparking entrepreneurship in a region whose cumbersome bureaucracies and lack of access to capital will be easy to implement. Naguib Sawiris, chairman and CEO of Orascom, a huge telecom company with assets throughout the Middle East and South Asia, noted that the “young don’t have a lot of help. They are fighting the same bureaucracy I did 30 years ago when I was starting a business. It’s difficult to become a successful entrepreneur — but it should be our first duty.”