Around the world, American political consultants are sought after for their know-how, and in many cases for the prestige they bring to a campaign. American firms make hundreds of millions of dollars a year from overseas work, according to some industry estimates. In Latin America, candidates often size each other up with the phrase, “Show me your gringo.”
In Eastern Europe, noteworthy presidential contests often feature prominent U.S. political consultants on either side. Last year’s election in Ukraine, for instance, included leading strategists from the 2008 presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
In the Arab world, though, work for U.S. political consultants has been more limited. Of the Arab League’s 21 current members, only three—Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq—are considered partially democratic, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Americans have worked on elections for other League members such as Jordan, but the results tended to leave power where it was—firmly with the monarchy.
But now that the spirit of revolution has taken hold, the Arab world is officially “a developing market, which is the biggest opportunity for American consultants,” says Phillips.
From a strategist’s perspective, it’s a blank slate—a rare opportunity given other areas of the globe where political parties and campaigns are either already consumers of U.S. consulting services or reliant on their own home-grown talent.
For now, many American consultants are working on generating new contacts across the region and trying to keep a close eye on emerging political players. Some are taking a “wait and see” approach to their solicitations of clients in Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli. Tony Marsh, whose firm has done extensive business in the Middle East, has sent proposals to prospective clients in Cairo, but hasn’t traveled there since Mubarak resigned. He’s angling for a letter of invitation before he buys a plane ticket, “so that I actually have some assurance I’m going to be meeting with a decision maker.”
Marsh compared finding work in Cairo to his experience in Baghdad, where he flies to make a pitch in person because of established relationships with many Iraqi politicos.
“Until you have that relationship, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to run over there and make a presentation,” he says. “There are people I know who would just show up uninvited and spend two weeks waiting to get an appointment. I try to avoid that.”
Other U.S. consultants, who have already traveled to the region, are keeping a deliberately low profile given that some local political players are concerned about being aligned with American consultants.
“There’s a sense of pride that this is their revolution and that they caused this,” says one U.S. consultant who was recently in the region to meet with prospective clients. “If Americans were known to be working with a certain political party, other parties could use it against them.”
One way for Western consultants to get a better read on foreign political environments is by partnering with locals, or by establishing an overseas office. Making political contacts in foreign capitals—even in the Middle East—can actually be relatively easy, says Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who has worked on national campaigns in Israel and across Europe.
“At that level of education, almost everybody speaks English,” he says. “The language barrier that you might encounter in a different part of the world, over there we wouldn’t encounter particularly with these people who seem to be at the head of the democratic movement, many of whom were educated in the United States.”
The greatest source of concern for consultants is also what’s worrying many U.S. policymakers—the political players in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are largely unknown, creating both political and economic uncertainty for stakeholders.
“Their sources of support are not well dentified,” says Marsh. “Their funds are not well defined.”
In short, getting paid for work could be problematic and figuring out whom to work for, potentially even tougher.