One hundred or so cranes pierce the skyline of this
city of less than half a million. Is this another Shanghai, or are
these one hundred question marks over the economic future of the
oil-rich Middle East?
With the world's third
largest gas reserves, Qatar can afford plenty of real estate
excesses as well as more admirable investments in education, a
science park and a television channel - Al Jazeera - that challenges
the intellectual and political stagnation of the Arab world as much
as it confronts the hegemonistic assumptions of the West.
But can ideas as well as
money spread beyond the oil-rich enclaves of the Gulf to spur a
region which, despite oil, has lagged behind most others in social
and economic development?
To talk of "the region"
may seem a misnomer. It consists of several very different
circumstances, ranging from the Gulf emirates at one extreme to
Egypt and the Palestinian territories at the other. They are joined,
however, by Islam and - with three key exceptions, Turkey, Israel
and Iran - by Arab identity.
Most of the countries
between Iran and the Maghreb are oil exporters, but for the more
populous countries such as Egypt, Iran, Algeria and Yemen, oil is at
best a poverty palliative, at worst a crutch that prevents them from
learning how to walk in the modern, globalized, industrialized
The current wisdom here
is that the region will not waste its oil wealth this time around as
it allegedly did after the oil booms of the '70s and '80s. The
money, it is said, is being invested in development at home or in
the region rather than being squandered on baubles or filling the
coffers of Western banks.
But none of this will do
much for the region's biggest need - job creation. Rich Gulf
investors may be building in hotels in Egypt or holiday homes in
Beirut that spread some economic stimulus. But what about the
labor-intensive factory jobs that are desperately needed to absorb
increases in labor forces?
What the region needs is
a combination of oil money, manufacturing expertise and access to
rich-country markets. But there is scant sign of it. With the
exception of Turkey, neither European nor Asian investors have done
much to take advantage of such preferential access to Europe as the
Meanwhile the local
investors appear to lack much interest in or knowledge of
labor-intensive manufacturing. The region sells oil and buys capital
goods and commodities but otherwise is not a player in the global
agreements remain just pieces of paper, as bureaucratic obstacles
slow the development of trade within the region and local attempts
at economic diversification result in the proliferation of small,
inefficient, often state-owned industries.
Most of the region
refuses to face up to its demographic challenges. The economic
progress of East Asia and Southeast Asia began with efforts to
reduce population growth rates to enable savings to be increased and
channeled into education and investment in higher productivity.
South Korea, Singapore, Thailand in the 1960s and China from the
late 70s followed that path.
Although birth rates in
the Arab world have come down, especially in North Africa, the
region generally continues to have high fertility rates which
promise annual labor force growth of 2 percent to 4 percent for the
foreseeable future, even assuming that female work force
participation remains low.
Ironically it is Iran
under the ayatollahs that has set an example in both family planning
and women's education. But Iran's religious politics, state controls
of industry, anti-Western views and separate ethnic identity prevent
it from playing a catalytic regional role. Turkey, for its part,
looks to Europe and has an uneasy relationship with the Arab world
and huge potential conflicts over water with Iraq and Syria.
the remnants of Arab socialism and current tensions over religious,
migration and political issues seem to prevent a productive synergy
between Europe and its southern neighbors. The Mediterranean is a
human barrier, not a trade waterway. That standoff contrasts with
the way Japan and its Asian neighbors took advantage of global
trading opportunities to set aside historical grudges as deep as
those in the Middle East.
Meanwhile the Arab world
lacks an exemplar among its own ranks that could show what can be
done with openness to ideas and to trade, with commitments to
education and, above all, to the realization that progress requires
change, often radical. In China the regime feels threatened if there
is insufficient economic growth. The opposite attitude often appears
to prevail in the Middle East.
Here in Qatar, one can
see sparks of progress and enlightenment that could combine with
wealth to generate change. But talk to the region's businessmen,
journalists and intellectuals, who come here for the conferences and
debates for which Doha is making a name, and it is hard to be
optimistic that energy wealth will readily translate into any other
form of wealth or energy.