When MEED prepared to celebrate its 50th anniversary, it invited more than 200 professionals who have worked, lived or were born in the region to give their own views.
What do they think is the single most important development of the past 50 years, and why? What do they believe are the important factors influencing Middle East social or economic development today? And how would they like to see the region develop in the next 50 years?
Looking back over the past five decades, there is overwhelming agreement. Oil and the 1970s energy boom made the region what it is today, and the current oil boom is the most important factor influencing development now. So far, so predictable. But when asked to explain why, respondents came back with very different reasons.
On the one hand, the social benefits of the 1970s oil boom were tremendous, points out a senior Saudi industrialist: “Infant mortality was halved, life expectancy rose, school enrolment soared for both genders, and adult literacy has improved”. The same positive effects, social as well as economic, can be seen from the recent oil boom.
Yet many people also pointed out the resulting problems of oil dependence.
“From a negative standpoint, the oil boom led to an excessive reliance on oil-rich economies rather than developing other sectors,” says a senior economic advisor based in Cairo. “More importantly, it led to an oil mania worldwide, with superpowers trying to dominate those oil-rich countries by all means and tactics, ultimately using military force to invade countries in the region to secure sources of oil.”
Oil dependence has also exaggerated political problems. Not only has economic growth been erratic, but innovation has been discouraged and governments have used their vast revenues to gloss over rather than correct their mistakes.
“Even the 1979 Iranian Revolution may not have evolved into what the Iranian regime is today without oil, and thus would not have revived the dream of an Islamic state and at the same time empowered Shiites across the Middle East while a) triggering the rise of Sunni fundamentalists elsewhere as a countervailing force and b) challenging incumbent moderate governments,” says Randa Azar, chief economist at the National Bank of Kuwait.
Looking ahead, many agree that one of the biggest concerns is population growth.
“The main challenge faced by the region is to provide employment opportunities to its fast-growing labour force through economic diversification,” says regional IMF director Mohsin Khan. “This requires continued efforts to reduce the role of the state in the economy and encourage the development of a strong private sector that will create the needed jobs. The state should be expected to play a supporting role, mainly through providing the physical infrastructure and education to improve the skills of new job entrants.”
The emphasis on knowledge and education explains why many respondents listed “satellite television” as the most important development of the last 50 years. It was one of the more unexpected replies of the survey, but in the context of respondents’ concerns about the cultural and political isolation of the Middle East, it makes perfect sense.
“It [satellite television] has affected many people and their way of seeing things, whether locally or even internationally,” says a senior Gulf politician. “It has also raised international awareness of the Arab world, and in that sense acts as a kind of go-between.”
Looking ahead, while many people expressed similar hopes of greater integration, whether economic, political or cultural, with the outside world, many equally felt that the solutions to the Middle East’s problems would be found locally.
And to that end, the words of Khaled Olayan, chairman of the Olayan Group, sum up the aspirations of most respondents:
“My vision is for a region immersed in peace and prosperity, fully integrated in the world economy, exerting an enduring, positive influence on humankind. We should never forget that the Middle East is the very cradle of civilisation. It is endowed with rich resources, both material and human. Its values of family and social hospitality can be a beacon of hope to ailing societies elsewhere.
“Last but certainly not least, the Middle East is the spiritual focal point for the majority of the world’s peoples. We have much to be thankful for, and much to give. Now let’s get to work.”
MEED survey: The results
What are the most important developments of the last 50 years?
The 1970s boom and the rise of the oil industry
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
What are the most important developments today?
Reinvestment of oil and gas revenues
Demographics and population growth
Regional instability and the aftershock of 9/11