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  Middle East & Africa
Is Arab Culture Impediment to MENA Economic Development?
Special Contribution
By Prof. Abdelkader Zerougui
American University
An Arabic woman in hijab

Whereas the world has shown significant growth even the remote parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) remains the most stagnant region in the world. The rentier states -shy from risky enterprise or wealth generated activities- have contributed to the failure of modernization in the region. Capital is lured to real estate and speculative activities or is shipped abroad to secure the ruling families in case of political turmoil and coup d’etats. The MENA countries have adopted “free-market” economy; however, they failed to create the entrepreneurial spirit that is the engine of any form economic development.

Capitalism is by no means a formula that can be implanted in all countries with the same results. Countries, such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore succeeded in enriching their cultures by incorporating the necessary capitalistic elements, and created the post-WWII economic miracles. However, some other countries, such as India, failed to reinvigorate its nascent post-socialist economy. India’s illiteracy rate was 55 percent in 2010. Its per capita income is half that of communist China; with 30 percent of its population living on less than 1 dollar a today. 80 percent of India’s population do not have access to clean toilets, and the country is ranked second after Bangladesh with the number of malnourished children.

The case of the MENA region points at an inherent incompatibility between the demands of a free-market economy -which are not solely economic- and the existing anti-entrepreneurial spirit, which is overwhelmingly a cultural trait. This, however, does not imply that these deficiencies cannot be redressed, since a wide range of countries have been able to emulate the Western models of economic development at different degrees.

Despite their oil wealth, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE could not break from their oil dependence or create a dynamic economy that can generate wealth, and foster the spirit of innovation . These countries have an unemployment rate between 15 and 20 percent, with most of the job located in an unproductive public sector that exacerbates cronyism, stalls creativity , and restrains burgeoning rational cultural traits -deemed necessary for capitalism- to flourish.

The arid land and the hostility of the environment have made the Arab Bedouin’s attachment to the land very superficial. Moreover, the identification with the nation has been always subordinated to the allegiance to the tribe and clan. The oil discoveries in the late 1960s reinforced the archaic traditions of personality-cult, and restrained the merchant class from following its European counterpart in laying the ground for the industrial revolution.

Hydrocarbons are used to buy social peace, and constantly recreating a system that does not endanger the ruling class or disturb the distribution of power. A true capitalist system with its cultural imperatives is too dynamic for these elites to control; and thus maintaining the spirit of entrepreneurship at bay is the sole guarantee for these families to continue ruling.

The social fabric of the MENA communities is decaying and the social capital responsible for socio-economic development is constantly regressing. The MENA has been an experimental ground for various imported modes and forms of management, but there are no tangible results that can be highlighted. The residents of this barren land are in despair for a “savior” who can redress things to the right path, and deliver them from the what Jean-Paul Sartre called the “Other.” Contesting the existing order is reprimanded by the state machinery. Ideas are dangerous , and revolutionary ideas can be extremely costly for the individual and his clan.

The absence of what Talcott Parsons –the famous American sociologist- calls defined goals , and a clear set of values, has dispersed the resources and retarded a productive middle class needed to support the economy. Tocqueville when visiting the United States in the 1830s was very impressed by the civil institutions that promoted citizenship, and chastised indecency. Max Weber -the German sociologist- was inspired by the Calvinist doctrine of hard work, honesty and predestination, which became the pillars of the good society. Such cultural traits have not emerged in the MENA region, and as a result, joining the Western world remains remote.

In the MENA region , paternalism has obliterated civil society, and clanism refrained the development of individualism, a key ingredient to meritocracy and personal-salvation. Arab universities are ranked among the worst in the world. The contribution of the Arab world to science, and R&D is nonexistent. In 1996, only 7 books were published in Oman, 26 in Libya, 209 in Qatar and 3000 in Saudi Arabia. By comparison , in 2009 more than 79,000 books were published in Japan. In 2011, Spain alone translated more books than the whole Arab countries put together during for the past 1000 years. In the MENA region, “Wasta” connection is the most powerful “asset” for acquiring wealth, landing a job or climbing the social ladder.

Education, hard work, competence, self-development have no value in the economic life of these societies. It is often the uneducated and the less competent who are in charge. Francis Fukuyama in his work Trust: The Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity warned against the corrosion of virtues of duty and hard work and their implications on the societies’ social fabric. The MENA region would probably score very low in social capital for the simple reason of the decaying of its social values.Culture plays a pivotal role in setting the path of the economic development. When traits of fatalism, tribalism, and collectivism are inculcated, self-development, entrepreneurship, and creativity will die in their embryos, and true capitalism will not emerge.

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Prof. Abdelkader Zerougui is an adjunct professor of sociology at American University in Washington DC, where he received his MA and PhD in sociology. Prof. Zerougui’s writings have appeared on many respected media including the Washington Times and The Seoul Times.






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