The Arab World: History Gone Wrong

…do these Middle Eastern states need foreign investment? The best comparison is with sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spain, cursed by easy riches and led down the path of self-indulgence and laziness. So with the oil-rich.  They have traded black gold for money and sent the oney back to the countries that aid it. They have purchased shares large and small in the enterprises of advanced industrial nations.   They have also built handsome homes, hotels, and laces, bought large, gas-guzzling automobiles (but fuel is cheap, like coal at the mine), acquired properties abroad where they can shelter their fortunes and permit themselves dress and behavior unacceptable  he.  Saudi Arabia, for all its deserts, has paid handsomely to import beach sand from Australia.  Most wasteful and counterproductive has bee a huge investment in arms, including weapons condemned by international law and treaties.  Much of this, presumably buys the friendship of the manufacturers of these nasty toys.

These countries simply haven’t developed an advanced economy . Like the Spain of yesteryear, they’ve purchased the skills and services of others, rather than learned to do things for themselves…

…not everyone has petroleum.  The Muslim countries of the  Middle East are either rich or poor depending on whether they have oil and have few or many people.  The richest have lots of oil and few people. (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait); the poorest have little oil and lots of people (Egypt); and in between are those that have oil but too many people. (Iraq and Iran).

…Rich or poor, these countries are without exception despotisms, where leaders are not responsible, actions are unpredictable, loyalty is a ruse or a mirage of propaganda, and everything, including the economy, is subordinated to politics and can be turned around by an event.  Instead of courting legitimacy by appeals to material improvement – have I made you better off? – Arab leaders have boasted of victories over colonialism as Zionism and waved the bloody shirt f jihad, promising to put history right. 

I recall a conversation in Amman back in 1968. A leading American (Jewish) scientist was trying to persuade  a group of local notables of the advantages of peace: knowledge and  collaboration, he urged, could make the desert bloom.  (This had long been a theme in liberal Zionist discourse). In vain; his Arab interlocutors told him they had more pressing things to do – first of all, to defeat Israel. Prosperity could follow.

It is still following. Nor will it come, other than locally, even in the “peace process” succeeds. For the ill is far more general than the Israeli-Arab conflict.

It lies, I would argue, with the culture,  which (1) does not generate an informed and capable workforce; (2) continues to mistrust or reject new techniques and ideas that come from the enemy West (Christendom), and (3) does not respect such knowledge as members do manage to achieve, whether by study abroad or by good fortune at home. At the most elementary level, the rates of illiteracy are scandalously high and much higher for women than for men. That alone speaks of a society that accords women an inferior place, and this is clearly related to attitudes cultivated in Islam and especially in the Islam of the Arab world.

…the huge oil windfall has been a monumental misfortune. It has intoxicated rulers, henchmen, and purveyors, who have slept on piles of money, wasted it on largely worthless projects, and managed to exceed their figuratively (but not literally) limitless resources. Even Saudi Arabia cannot balance its books.  In the process these spoilers have infuriated the Muslim poor, who in turn have sought an outlet for rage and outrage in fundamentalist doctrine.

David S. Landes: The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, (1999),  pp  408-414

(Professor Emeritus at Harvard University)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *