When I traveled to Saudi Arabia last week, a week prior to 9/11, I was given advise and counsel by a range of friends and associates. Counsel that respectfully, was mostly wrong.
With deep, deep respect and condolences to the family and friends of U.S. Ambassador Stevens, who along with three other Americans was senselessly gunned down in Libya on 9/11, the day after I left the region with my Operation HOPE staff -- this is simply not the Middle East that I have come to know. Nor the version of Islam that 99% of my Islamic brothers, sisters and friends practice, or even associate with. But, this is the version of Islam and the Arab world that we were unfortunately reminded of most last week. This is the version of the Arab world that many warned me against on my trip last week to Saudi Arabia this month.
I was told that the region disliked America and Americans, and that they had no real interest in progress or progressive thinking. That the treatment of women, as an example, was rooted in the religion (Islam), and embedded in the Koran. All, not true. All of it.
Less Bombs, More Hope.
The challenges and the problems are very real in the region. Even in Saudi Arabia, where I visited. The death of our Ambassador, a good and noble man, who treated the Arab world with so much respect and dignity that he even learned the language, consistently deferred to the culture, and fought for their independence from a tyrant, underscored just that. But this absolute and irrational radicalism is not the whole story of the region, nor even the vast majority of it.
It is not what I found last week while I was in Saudi Arabia, nor my trips prior to this, to places in the region such as Jordan and Dubai, and important regions near, such as Turkey. But this is all we are fed about the region, and as a result, all that we seem to know. Fear. And this lack of knowledge creates and fosters more fear.
And then, after the fear, enter new things like this senseless violence... and the world simply wants to throw up its hands, and give up.
But you and I cannot afford to give up on the Middle East. More so, they (the people and leaders in the Middle East) cannot afford to give up either. We are all in this, together.
The people I met want progress, and are just as frustrated by the fringe movements that seem to be overtaking the hopes, dreams and desires of their children, and the region, as we are. But unlike the rest of us who have the luxury of looking at this world comfortably from the outside, they are actually living in it, daily. What they need are answers, and when I was there I think I found one.
What they need are JOBS. Specifically, small business, entrepreneurship and new job creation.
The problem in the Middle East in general, the challenge in Saudi Arabia, and the problem in places like Libya in particular, are all the same problem. It's not Islamic extremism, per se, at its core -- as this is the result, not the cause. Its a lack of opportunity for the poor, the underserved, and specifically for young men.
What the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region need more than anything else are GOOD JOBS, or the real opportunity to create some. Here is what I know -- middle class folks don't want war, they want to go shopping. That places with only the very, very rich, and the very, very poor, are hotbeds for extremism and hopelessness. This is not just a Middle East problem, it is a worldwide problem. It's a problem right here in America too.
The main problem in the MENA region is very simply a lack of opportunity, and extremist forces feed on the hopelessness that follows. Here are the defining numbers (and they are not the number of Al Qaeda members).
60% of the MENA region will be under the age of 25 within 10 years, and Saudi Arabia is already more than 60% under the age of 25 today. News flash -- there is no stronger global security threat than a region that is young, uneducated, unexposed, unemployed, hopeless and suffering from a chronic case of lack of opportunity for all.
According to the World Bank the MENA region needs 100 million jobs by 2020. Not 10 million or 20 million jobs, which would already be tough, but 100 million. 100 million, new jobs, for a region than is 60% under the age of 25.
In America, 92% of all jobs are private sector, and about 8% are government. In the MENA region, the numbers are almost the opposite. Government jobs cannot solve this problem. There is not enough government money to go around, its not a sustainable plan, and this is not where most jobs (should) come from anyway.
Big business cannot solve this problem. In the largest economy in the world (the U.S.), less than 1,000 businesses employ 10,000 people or more.
War and terrorism cannot solve this problem.
Al Qaeda cannot solve this problem (they can destroy jobs, but have no idea how to create them).
What the MENA region needs most is an explosion not of bombs and IUD's (Improvised explosive devices), but a new explosion of youth entrepreneurship, small business, and youth self-employment projects clear across the region.
Ideas focused on creating things and lighting candles, rather than simply destroying things and cursing the darkness. Our new partner in the region, SEDCO Holdings, is but one of the many forward thinking private sector companies that are now focused on creating things and lighting candles for the people of the Middle East. Specifically, the youth of Saudi Arabia. In so doing, SEDCO is succeeding in becoming a leader amongst leaders in society too, led by their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) strategy.
Operation HOPE is proud to be SEDCO's partner in our effort to bring financial literacy, financial dignity and ultimately, economic opportunity to a region, and a future generation of youth there.
What the region needs most, is Hope, and I plan on doing my part to deliver it to and for future generations.
This is the Middle East that I know now.
John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), the only African-American bestselling business author in America, and is chairman of the Subcommittee for the Under-Served and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S. He is also a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Yo ung Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum. Mr. Bryant serves on the board of directors of Ares Commercial Real Estate Corporation, an NYSE Euronext publicly traded company, and a division of $54 billion Ares Capital.