How realistic is the Arab economic discourse?
March 8, 2017 | 5:45 PM
by Mohammed Mahfoodh Al Ardhi
The success of the Arab economic discourse depends on its ability to remain grounded in reality and lead intellectuals to approach the dominant themes from their own perspective. Bloomberg file photo

It is widely acknowledged that the Arab economic discourse is in urgent need of a facelift. However, there are several groups around the globe led by prominent opinion leaders that question the very nature of such a discourse. I believe some of our partners from other cultures must be asking themselves: Do Arab countries truly require a discussion that addresses a different reality than ours?

It is important to understand that laying down the foundations for change and development requires adopting an approach that reflects our own cultural experience and assesses the state of the international economy from our unique point of view.

Indiscriminate emulation of foreign perspectives would do more harm than good, as it may lead the discourse away from reality, misguiding institutions and even experts, and propagating false concepts among the public.

A majority of discussions about the Arab economy revolve around trends such as market liberalism, free trade, lifting barriers on goods and capital movement, and limiting the government’s ability to regulate the market. These have, in some cases, led to the government abandoning certain high revenue-generating sectors and to the emergence of new power hubs that make independent policies. Contrary to popular opinion, rather than fostering the expansion of Arab corporates, this phenomenon limits their capabilities and clears the way for multinational corporations to establish their hegemony.

Another key element is the discussion is the widespread belief in the eternity of capitalism as if it were the ultimate conclusion of the historical development of economic systems. This perspective limits the scope for critiquing capitalism and stressing the need to adapt the system to people’s demands.

The World Economic Forum in Davos lately highlighted issues such as the importance of the social component of economic activities in the private sector, the global North/South divide, and the alarmingly high number of people who have no access to water or electricity. Worldwide, over 700 million people suffer from hunger, two billion people are living on less than one dollar a day, 25 per cent of children do not receive basic education, and $2.5 trillion worth of food goes to waste every year.

The Arab region is exhausted by conflicts that are consuming its already frail economies. Various organisations under the UN umbrella require trillions of dollars to implement the Sustainable Development Goals and put the global economy back on track. These are the issues under the spotlight in the global arena, while the focus of the Arab region remains on capitalism.

Whenever Arab authors and thinkers attempt to dissect the failures of the global economy and emphasise the need to review its foundations and frameworks, they are seen as conspiracy theorists or being against capitalism.

The problem of the Arab culture, reflected in the economic direction we aspire towards, lies in its weak attempt to emulate what is perceived as strong without considering the context.

The dominance of Western culture on the Arab economic discourse has led to a noticeable absence of many non-Western experiences. Arab intellectuals do not discuss experiences in the East well enough, such as those of Malaysia, China and Singapore. Even if these examples are brought up theoretically, the practical application remains a direct copy of the Western experience.

A significant portion of the current global discourse explores the concept of populism that has emerged as a result of unfair globalisation. For developed and developing countries alike, it would be wise to examine the reasons that led to the rise of populism instead of using it as a justification for more globalisation.

The success of the Arab economic discourse depends on its ability to remain grounded in reality and lead intellectuals to approach the dominant themes from their own perspective. Furthermore, it is important that the outcomes encourage action rather than conceding that others are capable but we are not.

The sense of identity of a nation reflects on its socio-economic conditions. Therefore, what the Arab region needs is a resurgence of self-confidence. We must believe in ourselves, our individuality and our strengths.

An in-depth assessment of the Arab economic direction is the first step towards raising public awareness on the topic of development and enhancing our confidence in our ability to build on our own experience. Maintaining the independence of our dialogue is tantamount to ensuring the independence and sustainability of development.

We do not mean to look down on anyone, however, with the international economic system in urgent need of restructuring, taking a long hard look at the global state of economic affairs can benefit all of us.

Amid global efforts to reform the economy, we cannot afford to fall behind. Lagging development indicates a failure of the nation’s culture as well as its ability to learn from experience and stay up to date. We need to be bold but realistic in appraising the situation and bringing about positive change. Most importantly, we must ensure that our approach is inclusive and reflects the interests of all social segments rather than focusing on an isolated elite.

* The author is the Chairman of National Bank of Oman, Executive Chairman of Investcorp and an International Advisor to the Brookings Instituition. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.

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