I am a Lebanese-American, a conservative and a capitalist. I was born in Lebanon, and had one dream and one dream alone – to come to America, and make my fortune as a capitalist. I did just that. I studied at The Wharton School, went to work at the most entrepreneurial firm on Wall Street, Drexel Burnham Lambert, became a global entrepreneur-financier, and made my mark dealing with some of the largest capital pools in the world, orchestrating large scale buyouts and recapitalizations.
Today, the Middle East is a very different place than the one I left 25 years ago. "This isn't your father's Middle East," a good friend with whom I do business in the region loves to tell me. And yet he is disappointed that most Americans seem stuck in the 1970s when it comes to how we think and describe the place – as if all Arabs are the same, none worthy of our trust or respect.
American policymakers and the media tend to portray Arabs as inherently dangerous partners. It was only two years ago that the Dubai Port World deal was demagogued into oblivion. The controversy related to the management contracts of six major United States ports that had been owned by a British firm. When it was discovered that a company owned by an Arab country – The United Arab Emirates – had landed the contracts, all hell broke loose. Members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle argued that the agreement would compromise U.S. national security, and the deal was done.
Bill Clinton has been pummeled by the left and right for doing business with some Middle Eastern countries, too – as if by doing business with any Arab countries he is some kind of national security risk, or worse, some kind of traitor.
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The fact is that Bill Clinton is on to something. He knows that either we facilitate business ties and economic prosperity in the Middle East, or we risk losing our ability to influence the people of the region permanently.
This is why President-elect Obama needs to establish a new narrative in the region. Rather than invest inordinate amounts of time with antiquated political characters like Bashar Assad of Syria, who leads an essentially bankrupt state, Obama should seek to develop an economic approach to changing hearts and minds in the region.
The fact is, there is a new generation of activists and entrepreneurs emerging in the Middle East: pro-American, pro-capitalist allies in places like the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Lebanon.
Who are these pro-American, pro-business allies? I am talking about those people in charge of running the new and increasingly commanding pools of capital sources, such as the "Sovereign Wealth Funds" and other private equity and investment groups shaping up in the region. For instance, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority manages today in excess of $850 billion, more than the top 50 U.S. private equity funds combined.
These pro-American, pro-business Arabs want what we all want – the respect of the world. And what better way to confer respect than to do business with them, trade with them and give them a seat at the table of international economic power. That the G-8 has not a single Middle Eastern country included in its ranks, but has Russia as a member, can only be construed as an insult to the people of that region.
American businessmen should not hesitate to seek out business opportunities in the Middle East. My firm, Blackhawk Partners, was recently retained to act as financial adviser in a $300 million recapitalization of the biggest – and sole – water-bottling facility in Iraq. The company is run by Americans and has quickly become a dominant player in the market, well-positioned to become the largest producer of water in the Middle East.
There is no doubt that President Obama will inherit a tough set of problems in the region: Iran's growing influence in the region, Hezbollah's dominance of the government in Lebanon, the perception of Western weakness induced by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continued stalemate between Israel and Palestine.
But he also has a unique opportunity. Despite my very extensive experience in the region, I wasn't prepared for the universally positive feelings Obama's win engendered with the men and women living in the Middle East – the majority of whom are young, and the majority of whom are predisposed not to blow us up, but to emulate us.
If President Obama will focus on developing a new set of economic allies, while simultaneously dealing with the old set of political realities, he will go a long way toward turning some of that symbolic goodwill he has generated in the Middle East into something substantive.
This is one Lebanese-American conservative capitalist who will be cheering President Obama on. And praying – really praying – for his success. Because his success will be America's success and the world's.