I reflected the other day on how when I was in Business School in the 1990s, the three immutable laws of the world order were: 1) Japan had won it all; 2) China could never have growth without Jeffersonian Democracy; and 3) India would be a basket case for decades.
Of course, a few years later no one was saying any of this. And I can assure you that even when the change was accepted, no one envisioned that within two decades one of the largest initial public offerings of stock in history would be an eCommerce company from China -- and that the vast majority of its value creation relied, in no way, on the West, let alone the United States.
This reflection all came to me after giving a talk to 200 or so Washington foreign policy types -- including the next generation -- during which I asked how many knew of Jack Ma (the founder of Ali Baba, the Chinese company described above). Perhaps four hands went up.
Personal narratives change slowly, if at all, and institutional narratives even slower still. Thus I should not be surprised that people come up empty when I ask them to guess which region I am describing: where nearly 400 million individuals share the same language and much culturally; has a higher per capital GDP than India or China; has one of the fastest growing Internet adoption rates and smart phone penetration well exceeding 50%; is a mass tourist destination with only a tiny fraction booked online; has a mass consumer base with eCommerce relatively nascent; where 7% of the world seeks content in its language, but such content comprises less than 1% of what is online globally; and, has a hungry new generation, in fact a youth bubble, seeking economic opportunity.
They are shocked that I am describing the Middle East.
They are shocked because it runs counter to our narratives of historic political unrest, instability and violence. They are shocked because they are flooded today with the terrible reports of ISIS, some 12,000 members strong -- well-armed and well-funded perhaps, and certainly brutal -- without wondering what the 400 million other people in the region may be doing or thinking about each day.
They are shocked not because these are some very difficult times in the Arab world -- indeed these are -- but because it is very difficult to hold two conflicting ideas in our minds.
The 12,000 or so ISIS members absolutely could fester into something much worse and viral. But 18 months ago I judged a startup competition in Beirut, Lebanon with over 14,000 young people from around the Arab World taking their economic futures into their own hands. A friend of mine was at a TEDx gathering in Cairo last December. In the midst of great turmoil in Egypt, he saw nearly 5,000 kids gathered to solve problems, and over 50,000 Egyptians from across the nation were streaming the event live, wanting to learn more.
Last week I attended RiseUp Egypt 2014. Over two days, nearly 4,000 young Egyptians from around the country gathered at the GrEEK Campus, once a part of the American University of Cairo and a baseball throw away from Tahir Square. A leading visionary and venture capitalist, Ahmed Alfi, is making the GrEEK Campus into the largest shared work space in the Middle East, among the dozens that are springing up there. Over 40 journalists were present to cover this amazing event. Guess what? Not one was from the West.
It would be naive, and in fact immoral, to NOT concentrate on brutality and unchecked violence. Is it any more so to not understand what new opportunities and tools are available -- and to embrace the new futures they make possible?
Here is a little secret we have all learned: as new nations and markets and middle classes rise from difficult and even brutal histories, change is not for the faint of heart. Great displacement and great pain come with it. Repressive regimes don't go quietly into the night in their top-down focus on maintaining control, even as their citizens use bottom-up approaches and the tools of technology to solve their own problems and grasp opportunities in their backyards. They are no longer waiting for permission.
But something else is happening also.
For the first time in history, the Middle East -- and all emerging worlds -- have progressively ubiquitous access to technology. This is not one more paean to some high-tech utopian wonderment. It is simply a statement of fact: within the decade two-thirds of humanity will have the equivalent of a super computer -- the computing power that put a man on the moon -- in their pockets.
They will have unprecedented access to each other, to ideas that worked elsewhere and that they now know can work for them, to essentially all of human knowledge at their fingertips. They will use even basic technology -- a texting-capable, old-school phone -- to move money and simple crafts to markets they could never before reach. They will have access to supplemental education in ways once reserved only for the wealthy to compensate for their failing education systems. They will find clever ways to address problems because millions of more people with great talent and genius -- who have always been there -- can now engage.
I can't tell you what Syria or Iraq will look like in a year, let alone three. But I can tell you with 100% certainty that what I wrote is true now and will only expand in coming years.
How and whether we choose to understand this new narrative is up to us, but it is also an exercise in engaging in a world as it is rather than what we fear it must always be.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Education For Employment (EFE), a non-profit focused on creating job opportunities for unemployed youth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Conflict and upheaval have dominated the news on MENA in 2014, and some see a region spiraling into chaos. But beneath the alarm bells, some digital pioneers are doubling down on their bets that the region's next generation could have a brighter future tied to technology and skills. For more information on EFE, read here.