On April 26, 2016, POMED hosted a panel discussion on its new report. To view a summary of the event, please click here.
This report analyzes President Obama’s final annual budget request as well as the congressional appropriations process to draw conclusions regarding broader priorities, trends, and strategies for U.S. policy. The Middle East remains the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance globally, receiving more than $7 billion per year. In a volatile and changing regional landscape, however, there are important questions about the impact of such assistance. In what ways have U.S. policy, engagement, and assistance to the MENA region changed over the course of the Obama administration? What can an analysis of U.S. budget and appropriations tell us about the priorities of this administration? And what might be learned from such an analysis to inform the policies of the next administration?
- The limited space for independent civil society, especially pro-democracy organizations, is becoming even more constrained across the region – most dramatically in Egypt, but also in Jordan, Libya, and Morocco. Since 2011, growing restrictions on civil society across the region, particularly in Egypt and the Gulf states, have impeded the work of independent democracy and human rights organizations. But more recently, some Arab governments are also putting up new obstacles before U.S. development organizations that work on less politically-sensitive areas such as education, water, and economic growth. If this worrisome trend continues, various forms of U.S. foreign assistance could become even more difficult to administer in the region.
- U.S. government spending on programming to support democracy, human rights, and governance in the MENA region reached its lowest level under the Obama administration in Fiscal Year 2015. Democracy and governance programming in the MENA region averaged approximately $380 million annually from fiscal years 2009 through 2014. But in FY15, the administration spent only $180 million on such programming. Democracy and governance programs have become increasingly difficult to implement across the region, due to violent conflict and instability in some countries and increasing interference and restrictions in other countries. President Obama’s final budget request, for FY17, does include $427.5 million for democracy programming, but U.S. government agencies may continue to experience difficulties in spending those funds as planned.
- Concerns remain regarding the diminished role of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and its future. The democracy-promotion community continues to view the recent folding of MEPI into the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Office of Assistance Coordination (NEA/AC) as cementing a weaker role for MEPI, which was for more than a decade the flagship U.S. program to support Arab reformers. The FY17 budget includes the lowest annual budget requested for MEPI since it was launched in 2002. It appears that U.S. officials have begun to take steps to address some concerns about MEPI. But MEPI’s role will need to be clarified and its reputation rehabilitated in order to receive continued support from Congress during the next administration.
- In the past year, funding for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) and for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has increased significantly. In the FY17 budget request, the administration seeks $75 million in funding for DRL, the highest amount requested for the Bureau since President Obama came into office; Congress also appropriated $88.5 million for DRL’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund in FY16. Over the past seven years, Congress has also steadily increased funding for the NED, appropriating a new high of $170 million in the FY16 appropriations act. As democracy and governance programming becomes more difficult in the region, DRL and the NED often are viewed as better suited to the kind of sensitive work that is necessary in challenging environments.
- Although there are notable tensions between the Obama administration and some of its closest authoritarian allies, this has not resulted in any significant decrease in U.S. support for such governments. Long-time bilateral relationships with several authoritarian governments in the region – namely Egypt and the oil-rich Gulf states – have become frayed. U.S. frustrations with and criticisms of these states have increasingly spilled out into the open, deepening mistrust on both sides. Yet, these frustrations have not led to any significant corresponding decrease in support to such authoritarian governments. On the contrary, military aid and large-scale U.S. arms sales to Middle Eastern governments have continued and reached record levels, with the U.S. government selling more than $100 billion in arms and weapons to the region since Obama took office.
- The future of U.S. economic assistance to Egypt is increasingly uncertain, and changes to military aid are underway. An extremely difficult period in Egypt, marked by brutal repression, economic deterioration, and escalating violence, has contributed to difficulties in U.S.-Egypt relations and challenges in implementing some assistance programs. This has sparked discussions within the administration and Congress regarding potential changes or reductions to Egypt’s aid package. The administration has also taken initial steps to pave the way for potentially important changes to the $1.3 billion military aid package to begin in FY18.
- The Obama administration and Congress are supportive of Tunisia’s democratic transition, doubling the level of assistance for 2016 compared to previous years. Tunisia stands alone in terms of the progress made in its democratic transition since 2011. Daunting security, economic, and political challenges remain, however, and the country will continue to need large-scale support in the period ahead. Although many observers believe that the United States was too slow to reward Tunisia’s democratic progress adequately, the United States should be commended for increasing bilateral assistance levels to the country in 2015. President Obama should seek additional opportunities to bolster Tunisia’s democratic transition and deepen the U.S.-Tunisia relationship during his final year in office.
- U.S. assistance to Jordan has grown significantly. Although Jordan has been among the largest recipients of U.S. aid globally for many years, the administration and Congress have recently acted to expand the aid relationship even further. Congress appropriated $1.275 billion in bilateral assistance for Jordan in FY16, significantly more than the $1 billion agreed upon in a multi-year MOU for 2015-2017. Including funds drawn from other accounts, Jordan is now expected to receive a total of $1.6 billion in U.S. assistance during 2016. This level would exceed U.S. aid to Egypt in FY16, making Jordan the largest Arab country recipient of U.S. assistance for the first time.
Stephen McInerney is Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). He previously served as POMED’s Advocacy Director from 2007 to 2010. He has extensive experience in the Middle East and North Africa, including graduate studies of Middle Eastern politics, history, and the Arabic language at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo. He has spoken on Middle East affairs with numerous media outlets including BBC, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, and CBS News. His writing on Middle East affairs and U.S. policy has been published by Foreign Affairs, the Daily Star, the New Republic, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Post. He received a Master’s degree from Stanford University.
Cole Bockenfeld is the Deputy Director for Policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). He has studied the Middle East and global diplomacy at the University of Arkansas, Georgetown University, and the University of London. Prior to joining POMED, he worked for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) on electoral assistance programs in Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, and the West Bank and Gaza, including fieldwork in Beirut and Baghdad. His writing on Middle Eastern politics and U.S. foreign policy has been published by the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Christian Science Monitor.