3 Feb 2011

Opening Up The Middle East

This is the summary extract from my book ‘Opening Up The Middle East’, which I wrote a few years ago. In light of recent events in Egypt, it seems oddly relevant.

Reflections: What Now For the Middle East?
‘Seize opportunity by the beard for it is bald from behind’
- a rather unlikely, but appropriate Bulgarian proverb.
It’s probably not a good idea to convey the meaning using such bodily
terms of reference in this part of the world, but it is accurate nonetheless.
Looking at the broad regional picture in the Middle East, many things are
complicated, but some things are clear. I don't come anywhere near to
holding all the answers, but, based on my experiences, these are my
The great irony of the Arab world is that, historically, it was once the
spearhead of what we now term 'globalisation'. In the West, rightly or
wrongly, today’s image of Arab people is of a people who are proud, but
angry. They once had a glorious, and at times comparatively enlightened,
past. They lived under comparatively enlightened empires and in golden
ages. But what of their future?
Firstly, for a long term solution, the entire region could revert to a very
short term US electioneering slogan Bill Clinton used in 1992,
– ‘It’s the Economy Stupid!’ Everyone becomes so preoccupied with talk of territory, guns, bombs and
religion, that economics has been virtually sidelined. Yet economics
matters. It really matters, and has been shown to matter, in other areas of
the world where long-standing conflicts are on the way to being resolved.
If a continuing sliding trajectory of economic growth, in somewhere like
the Palestinian areas, is prolonged it will do much to undermine the best
laid plans for peace.
Take China and Taiwan for example. Increased prosperity for the growing
numbers of middle class citizens has translated into greater stability.
Increased trade is an important component of acceptance and
reconciliation. When people become better off, they are less interested in
instigating or supporting violence as a means to achieve their ends. In the
words of one former Jordanian foreign minister,
‘The Americans seem to understand the importance of economics, but
their focus is never sustained.’
The irony of this, is that America became the world’s most powerful
superpower thanks in major part to the strength of its economic power.
The reality though, is that plenty of economic good can be done
internally, without the Americans.
Prosperity to the Rescue?
The Arab region as a whole has a GDP which is less than that of Spain,
yet it has six times the population. Half its people are under 25 years old.
Many economies in the Middle East have been badly managed and are
endemically corrupt. This has benefited no one, apart from a select elite.
Countries like Syria and Egypt drown in a sea of unnecessary regulations
and rules, which stifle individual initiative and enterprise.
Trading is historically inherent to the people of the Middle East. They just
need to be freed up from the oppressive and centrally planned command
economic structures, which are consistent with inflexible authoritarian
and corrupt regimes. Economies can succeed with or without the
government, but they cannot succeed against the government.
There needs to be less interference and more freedom, for people to make their
own financial decisions. Then imagine what could be achieved.
Liquidity is a major issue which must be resolved. People and companies
cannot make decisions to invest and take risks, like so many people do to
keep our own economies motoring along, without access to capital. There
is too much wasted or ‘dead’ capital, which cannot be mobilised.
A fair and reliable system for owning property would also be useful. The
banking and credit systems – which we take for granted to do things like
borrowing to start businesses and take out mortgages – are inadequate.
Funnily enough, we even obtained the word ‘cheque’ from the Arab word
‘sek’, which means draft order.
Meaningful property rights, a key tenet of any economic development,
barely exist. The rule of law and institutions are not credible, or
independent enough, for people to rely on. This, in turn, breeds more
Satellite TV and the internet are now ensuring that
authoritarian leaders can no longer guarantee the captive audiences they
have relied on to instil propaganda and fear into. Words like democracy
and elections are sprouting up in next doors' gardens.
Politicians and arms manufacturers do not create (and cannot impose)
wealth and prosperity, and never have done. The people do, organically
from within. They do it best without the incompetence and self-serving
corruption of their own leaders and foreign occupation. Historically, the
people in this part of the world have entrepreneurial instincts, which they
should be allowed to unleash once again.
In some East Asian countries, particularly South Korea and Malaysia,
authoritarian regimes were able to gain some degree of legitimacy,
because their people became better off. However, the distance between
the rulers and the ruled in the Middle East is too much of a one way
relationship and the gap must be narrowed.
Politically, the issues of legitimacy, accountability and fair representation
are particularly sensitive ones – but why? Most leaders in this part of the
world are authoritarians without legitimacy. They are accustomed to
packaging failure as success in a very New Labour way. No one can
meaningfully argue with them, or dispute what they say. Many times the
people of this region have had to stand back from the roaring flames of
bonfires fuelled by hollow rhetorical promises, vows and pledges on
democracy and opening up, which quickly burn to miserably charred
Looking at a bigger picture then, perhaps the Bush administration has
misunderstood and misjudged what fundamentalist Islam represents in the
Arab-Muslim consciousness. Benign ignorance of Islam became fearful
ignorance after 9/11.
The key now, as it always has been, is the Arab middle class, whom the
US should be concentrating its energies and resources supporting, not
alienating, rather the dictators who rule them badly (Saudi Arabia, Egypt
particularly). Consistent with this, will be the formation of credible
institutions and a reliable rule of law.
The billions of dollars of American aid money could be better spent elsewhere - why not graduate from aid to trade? It is folly to suggest that Israel, for instance, still needs economic assistance. It can look after itself, and the $1.5 billion used to build settlements on Palestinian land under ‘humanitarian aid’ should be more
vigorously scrutinised, not least by American taxpayers.

What I found interesting, and slightly surprising, was that of all the
countries I travelled in during my journey through the Middle East, none
of them could really be labelled a strictly Islamic country. Of course
religion plays a vital role in many of them, but each has its own
Syria is officially secular. Egypt is also wary of extremist
elements in the Muslim Brotherhood; Palestine, where the people are
more concerned by territory and living ordinary lives than religion;
Turkey where the importance of religion is increasingly being traded in
for opportunities of material improvement. The problem is that so many
people in the West lump together all these countries under the Islamic
banner, when the reality is more complex.

Is Democracy the answer?
Democracy is an incredibly powerful and contagious thing. Modest, but
notable steps seem to be occurring in the right direction. On the other
hand, to prescribe liberal democracy as the one-size-fits-all solution
straightaway for everything would not be the answer, especially if it
needs to be imposed from the outside rather than being encouraged to
organically develop from within. In this respect, maybe something is
stirring. President Bush may express his ideology in rather unsubtle and
simplistic terms, and can be inconsistent in applying his credentials
around the world, but it does at least set a benchmark, or a well lit
However, if you choose to force democracy - since embryonic democracy
cannot normally be nurtured without a change of circumstances - then
you must accept its consequences. Maybe it is better perhaps, to stand
away and let a ripple effect take place aided by the desire to be truly
independent, like Lebanon. The powerful rhetoric of ‘resistance’ is not
likely to lose its potency for a while yet. This might involve bringing the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah for example, properly into the mainstream.
But will they want to wholeheartedly evolve into mainstream politics?
At the other end of the political spectrum, can despots become trusted
democrats overnight? Probably not. Can new leaders be truly democratic,
legitimate and accountable? In the long run it is possible. Politicians and
systems can evolve and mature. They have to if the public appetite for
change has been sufficiently whetted.
It brings us back to the very beginning of my journey and Turkey. The
extremists soften their policies in office and are often best placed to carry
their constituencies with them on a modernising journey. Turkey could be
the testing ground for the argument that Islam is compatible with a
secular liberal democratic system. It would benefit everyone for the EU to
make sincerely inclusive overtures to Turkey, rather than harshly
exclusive ones, especially ones termed in prejudiced and religious tones.
Alienation risks unpredictable consequences. Why not engage them
instead? Who knows? Turkey may be more of an asset, than the burden
many people fear and governments expect.
However, further south and east, the Americans have an inherent
addiction to selling tanks and fighter jets to satisfy a thirst for oil.
America spends $420 billion each year on defence. Think how big that
figure really is, but they still struggle to rustle up a single spokesman
capable of putting across its message in Arabic on Al-Jazeera.
We should not misunderestimate, as George Bush might say, the colossal
political power, in the medium to long term, of these two domestic
lobbies in America - the right to drive huge vehicles and sell weapons -
and the broader implications these addictions have externally.
But particularly the dependence on foreign oil. Americans’ love for cheap
petrol props up those economies, which rely on selling oil. So in an era of
higher oil prices, all that extra money from the pockets of American
citizens goes straight into the bank accounts of Middle Eastern
governments, some of which (Saudi Arabia, Iran) are indirectly financing
the terrorists the president pledges to destroy. How much simpler life in
international politics would be for America if it could significantly reduce
its dependence on oil from the Middle East.
Peace might be more destabilising for many people in powerful positions
with vested interests on all sides. We should be honest in admitting this.
Over inflating the Fear Factor does not really bring much clarity to the
situation - it is mutual vulnerability. You cannot defend or fortify every
single soft terrorist target and it obscures the more important economic
The population growth of the region is also a problem - 60 % of the Arab
world is under 25 years old. If a country like Syria keeps growing at the
present rate, its population will double in a generation, and the economy
cannot grow fast enough to keep up. The rate at which average incomes
are rising is less than the rate at which the population is growing, which
might spell trouble. Those who work have to support a lot of dependents.
On the other hand, the Middle East looks likely to continue to suffer from
the ‘Brain Drain’, where all the most talented people of working age
desert their countries in search of better lives elsewhere. And the ones
who don’t desert, without meaningful economic opportunity, often turn to
religion. Secular education would empower these young people and
possibly divert more of them away from the radical madrassas. Swap
passion and emotion for the nuts and bolts of policy and debate.
Have we reached the point where the structure of hate is now too
ingrained and endemic for the necessary co-operation and compromises
to succeed? Where people resort to emotion before reason, and violent
extremism becomes the norm? Unremitting bitterness, reciprocal violence
- the breakdown in trust could become permanent. Is it a case of
choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable? A world in which
using human shields, putting bombs in ambulances, targeting schools and
bombing religious sites becomes the norm?
A perpetual war is a dreadful prospect, especially if the world diverts its
gaze from Iraq, and gives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an escalated
international and religious dimension. Many Arabs, rightly or wrongly,
already see no distinction between Israel's occupation of Palestinian
territory and America's occupation of Iraq. Both conflicts are portrayed
on Arabic satellite channels as similar dramas of national or Islamic
resistance. They undeniably fuel boilings of anger hundreds of miles
beyond the epicentres. An apocalyptic scenario might fancifully envisage
Al Qaeda setting itself up in the Palestinian territories to attack Israel,
followed by forceful, disproportionate US retaliation on Israel’s behalf,
inflaming even moderates in the Arab world.
I don’t buy the argument that poverty and desperation equals suicide
bomber, but there is a contributory effect, and it is depressing to think of
children growing up, knowing nothing different to hatred, violence and
death - fertile growing conditions for the ingredients of violence to grow.
Which again emphasizes how essential it is to get the economic bit right.
However, it must be stated very clearly and loudly that nearly all Arabs
and, indeed Muslims, are not remotely anything like Osama Bin Laden.
The most effective fighting tool against Bin Laden and his ilk is the
bravery, integrity and decency of the immense majority of the world's one
and a half billion Muslims.
It is very tempting to say that religion is not as big a deal as people make
it to be from the outside. Most people in this region have broadly secular
instincts. Religion is nothing more zealous than a source for moral
guidance. They simply want legitimate, accountable leaders to represent
them. Not democracy through fear, intimidation, assassination, fraud, and
total control of the media - the Russian way. Does the new generation of
political leaders have the stomach for the right kind of fight – opening up
and reforming to make their people more prosperous? The jury is still out.
As one former Egyptian minister said,
‘They [Arab governments] can make the right gestures, but even a small
relinquishment of authority produces ugly withdrawal symptoms’.
Rhetorical talk of impending reform from the top may be no more than
skin deep. It will be especially shallow, if the real balance of power might
become threatened by change, at which point the well practised survival
instinct digs in again.
Having preserved power for so many years, many of the regimes of
Egypt, Syria and the like, are nothing if not muscular, cunning and
ruthless. In Egypt the people have become so used to fraudulent and
manipulated voting that they might be warily cynical and deservedly
distrustful of the benefits of voting. Things that we take for granted, like
being able to properly scrutinise government spending, a hostile press,
independent courts, full emancipation of women and impartial police
remain a long way off. Expedient, vested gradualism is the chosen path.
You have to be very optimistic to believe all these diversely converging
problems can be resolved smoothly, and any window of opportunity will
not stay open for long. However, as well as the threats and fears, there
does exist promise and opportunity, in the form of different, emerging
leadership, and the greater potential for reform they can provide.
Then we might just begin to see another side to the Middle East through
our news screens and in our newspapers. So instead of always associating
the Middle East with death, bombs and terrorism, we can also talk about
life as well. And perhaps returning to what Confucius said, the Middle
East is not simple and, in analysis, we should complicate it more.
So it may be time to seize opportunity by its beard. Is the Middle East
waking up to something significant, or merely rolling over in its sleep?
As someone once pronounced, it is best to never prophesise, especially
when it concerns the future.
But one thing you can be sure of in the Middle East, is that the coarsely
evolving momentum of events will always keep things bumpily rolling
along with unpredictability, as they always have done. Just like my
travels. It will be worth following.
So in the end, there were no kidnappings or suicide bombings. I had
certainly spent an uncomfortably excessive amount of time in the
company of people with guns employed by dubious governments. I had
also become undesirably intimate with an unhealthily excessive amount
of animal excrement. But these were the worst things to happen to me in
the Middle East.
There was little time to sit comfortably. But I wouldn’t have done any of it much differently. The pounding pulse of life in the Middle East remains compellingly vivid and vibrant. There is still plenty of Middle Eastern promise. It deserves to be properly sampled.

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