Diaspora State-Building in the Middle East

The Arab world is in a state of flux, and the destruction reshaping these societies is forcing unprecedented numbers of people to flee to the West. While pundits and politicians focus on how these newcomers are reshaping Western society, a more significant question is how this diaspora is reshaping Arab societies. The melding of national identities and the ability to direct armies and businesses, and even vote, from across oceans has dramatically changed the field of state-building and it will directly effect how Arab societies emerge from their present state of chaos. The leaders in government, business, and academia who will usher forth a new generation of Arab states will likely come from the Arab diaspora in the West. The important role these transcontinental diaspora communities will play in the rebuilding of Arab societies could provide an avenue for the West to nudge the direction that such rebuilding efforts take.

Image courtesy of Ggia, © 2015.

So why will Arabs in the West play such a large role in their countries of origin? A cynical view is that those with influence in post-conflict countries have close ties to the world powers pulling the strings. Libyan general Khalifa Heftar, for example, has well documented ties to the CIA, and indeed rose to prominence in the initial revolt against Muammar Qadhafi with covert funding from the United States. The counter-argument is that Arab ex-pats in the West tend to be wealthier and more educated than the average Arab and thus are more likely to assume positions of power. In short, the answer to the question of whether the diaspora is wealthy because they live in the West or if they are in the West because they are wealthy likely varies based on individual cases.

If in fact the most influential individuals to emerge from this period of flux are now living in the West, what will be the effects? We need only to look at Somalia, an Arabized state on the Horn of Africa which saw the complete collapse of its central government in 1991. After years of civil war, foreign intervention, and famine, an internationally supported government slowly emerged in the capital of Mogadishu. In 2012, the year the Federal Government of Somalia was established, 1.5 million Somalis living abroad contributed between $1.3 and $2 billion in remittances. They proved crucial in rebuilding everything from schools, hospitals, roads, and businesses. Additionally, many of the most talented and educated Somalis who had fled during the war in a “brain drain,” returned, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Many took leadership roles in the government, with the majority of the parliament having formerly lived abroad, in part due to education requirements for the job. These businessmen and politicians, doctors and lawyers brought with them a fresh perspective, as well as funding and education, literally foreign to most Somalis.

This alien influx not only allowed for many of the challenges of Somalia to be met, but prompted a palpable division in Somali society. Somali’s who had weathered the years of war and poverty resented expats returning and taking jobs and leadership roles from native Somalis. They also resented the foreign ideas and practices many of these individuals adopted in the West. After years of rule by the Islamic Courts Union and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab, many former refugees found a Somalia much more religiously conservative than when they had left. The shock was compounded by the fact that many of these former Western residents had adopted more liberal religious outlook. While new fractures emerged in Somalia due to the influx of former refugees, many more were healed due to the stream of talented individuals seeking to rebuild Somali society.

Since values, ideas, and creativity seem to be some of the biggest introductions from the Somali diaspora to their native countries, examining the make-up of the Arab community in the West may give us a better idea of what values Arab-Westerners would send to places like Syria and Libya. As of 2013 there were 16.1 million Middle Eastern immigrants in the world. In the West, France hosts the most with 2.8 million and the United States comes in second with roughly 1 million, most coming from Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon. On average, when compared to the overall native and foreign-born American population, Middle Eastern immigrants are higher educated but less employed. They are also more likely to obtain citizenship than most foreign-born residents of the United States. Middle Eastern immigrants mostly coalesce around major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit, all hotbeds of diversity and models of multiculturalism.

Many Arab diaspora members in the United States are also Muslim and Muslim Americans in general have more tolerant religious views than Muslims in the Arab world. Half of Muslim Americans report that most of their friends are non-Muslims whereas the global median among Muslims, even Muslim’s in non-Muslim countries, for such a question is that 95% say most of their friends are Muslims.

An examination of the conflicts in places like Syria and Yemen show that many of the region’s wars have a significant sectarian component. In others, such as those in Sudan and Iraq, ethnic strife plays a large role. An influx of leaders who have spent years living and working with people of different races and religions could promote post-conflict reconciliation. Likewise, ideas of the state and citizenship are shifting after the emergence of ISIL and the Arab Spring. An influx of migrants who have gone through the naturalization process to become U.S. citizens, and some, like Somali President Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed, who have served as American civil servants, could help direct the shifting perception of citizenship toward more liberal and democratic ideals.

Rather than thinking of Syrian and other Arab immigrants as potential threats to security and values, President Trump and other Western leaders should see these new comers as strategic assets. Not only will they send back remittances but they will send back ideas and values that they have adopted in the West. A positive perception of the values of religious liberty, rule of law, and political participation—will spread faster through refugees than through any invasion, aid program, or propaganda machine. While the flight of refugees to the West may be causing tensions within for now, the outcome may be a reverberation of Western values in the Middle East.


Connor Kopchick

Connor currently works for a government contractor in northern Virginia. He has spent time traveling and studying in India, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and the Arab Gulf states and is interested in all things related to the Muslim world as well as peace and conflict resolution. Connor holds a B.A. in political science from Davidson College. You can connect with him on Twitter @thekops93.
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