An estimated 65 percent of the population in the Middle East and North Africa is below the age of 30. Andrew Rabens is helping build U.S. relationships with aspiring young leaders from these nations.
As a 30-year-old State Department employee, Andrew Rabens has taken responsibility for an important task—building U.S. relationships with young people in the Middle East and North Africa who may one day become government, civil society and business leaders in their respective communities and countries.
Serving as the special advisor for youth engagement in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Rabens is working on several fronts to help empower young foreign leaders and familiarize them with American democratic institutions and society.
In 2012, Rabens organized the Active Citizen Summit (ACS), bringing 55 delegates from the Middle East and North Africa to the United States for 10 days to meet, learn, exchange ideas and discuss how to be effective leaders in their communities and countries.
“Andy was able to recruit these people by working with our embassies and design a program that really gave them the opportunity to meet each other, to see what their counterparts in different parts of the region were doing and what the United States has to offer,” said Mario Crifo, the deputy director of public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
The young foreign leaders, ages 18 to 35, included delegates from all over the region, most notably from places where their political leaders might not talk with one another as a group (Iran, Israel, Palestinian Territories, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt), but whose young adults were willing to engage in discussions.
The participants spent two days in San Francisco focusing on leadership development and communication skills training. They spent four days observing political campaigns in California, Utah and North Carolina two weeks before the 2012 U.S. elections. They then reconvened in Washington, D.C., for policy discussions and presentations that showcased the ideas and initiatives that they planned to implement back home.
Following the summit, a Qatari delegate obtained private-sector funding to host a summit in Doha and worked with fellow delegates to expand his youth empowerment and development organization to neighboring countries Morocco and Algeria.
Other initiatives that the delegates are pursuing include an advocacy group for Internet freedom in Iran; an online application for women to carpool in Saudi Arabia as a means to lower the high cost to women of working; and efforts to build democratic infrastructure in Tunisia and Yemen.
Rabens said he hopes that by helping to create networks and provide new insights, these young leaders will be better prepared to play more active roles in their respective societies and push their ideas and initiatives forward. He said the program also provides an opportunity for the participants to receive U.S. seed money to implement their projects.
“Young people are the most important demographic right now,” said Rabens. “It’s important to look to the future and to start building relationships that will have influence down the road.”
It is estimated that 65 percent of the population in the Middle East and North Africa are below the age of 30.
Colleagues said Rabens was involved in organizing the summit and identifying potential participants, planning the program and activities, securing the funding and obtaining clearance for the attendees to come to the United States.
“The reason why the program was so successful was because of his amazing ability to pull people and resources together to accomplish it,” said Crifo. “His teamwork and ability to communicate his vision and create new sources of support are what set him apart and make him so effective.”
In addition to this task, Rabens regularly works with 17 embassies and one consulate to build and strengthen their youth networks and engagement efforts. He also works to create youth councils that connect embassy officials to young leaders to better understand the challenges they face and to identify overlapping interests.