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Eureka: A fireside chat on the Middle East
by Joseph Gatt
2017-12-18 09:14:57
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You essentially have three types of governments. You have capitalist governments whose main focus is to shape the economy and security, socialist governments whose main focus is to shape social needs, and nationalist governments whose main focus is to shape national identity, often casting economic, security or social needs aside.

middleas01_400The Middle East tried its luck with capitalism in the first half of the twentieth century. The main assumption is that you need engineers to build factories and can't run factories without engineers, and can't build factories without capital. So in the first half of the twentieth century several engineers, farmers, ranchers and capitalists were called from Europe to settle in the larger Middle East, from Morocco all the way to Iran and as far South as Yemen. Parts of the Middle East were formal colonies, others were protectorates, others were independent, others were deserts. The idea was to industrialize the Middle East. But capitalism had led to the impoverishment of large parts of Middle Eastern populations. Having been left out of the Marshall Plan after World War II, the Middle East eventually experienced economic difficulties and abandoned capitalism altogether.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, a lot of the Middle Eastern nations tried their luck with socialism. Some succeeded, usually smaller countries with small population and large oil fields who shared oil revenue and live comfortable lives, as in Oman, and the former Trucial States. Some had no luck and no oil and remained impoverished. Some had oil, but not enough to feed growing populations birth rates of up to 10 children per family. An attempt was made at building an industrial base, but the European engineers were gone and a chicken and egg question surfaced. Does industry come first, or do the engineers come first? Engineers were trained but usually left the country, as Europe and North America had their shortage of engineers during the 1970s and 80s. This meant production technology was often 20 or 30 years behind its time and there were few engineers around the keep the machines running. Distribution markets were also chaotic and known as ''Flee market distribution systems.'' In the late 1970s and early 80s Middle Eastern states started importing products that they were actually producing themselves, a temporary solution to feed to growing discontent.

When socialism failed and Soviet aid was no longer coming in, a lot of Middle Eastern nations entered their third phase, what I'll call the Nationalist phase in the 1990s. During this phase, rather than planning the economy, security or social needs, Middle Eastern governments were increasingly having debates on ''Identity issues.'' Now if you eavesdrop at a conversation in Middle Eastern public places, conversations are no longer about making money and defending the nation (capitalism) or about education and finding work and healthcare (socialism) but are about religion, gender, anthropology and national identity (nationalism). Traditionally when capitalism no longer works you try socialism, and when socialism no longer works you opt for nationalism. The Middle East is not the only region on this tangent, Europe is closely following the Middle East's path.

So what are the economic consequences of Middle Eastern nationalism ? I'll talk about the social consequences, then the economic consequences, then the political consequences, then the international relations and security consequences.

The social consequences are societies structured around identity. Religious identity is at the forefront and religious minorities don't fit into the boxes and are barely tolerated. There have been open calls for a return of the caliphate system, which is often an indirect and subtle endorsement of ISIS. But in every Middle Eastern country you will recognize three types of individualities if you like: the capitalist individuality, which often dresses like westerners and tends to focus on career advancement, the socialist identity, which dresses modestly and focuses on charity and social harmony within their circles, and the nationalist individuals who like to dress and act in ways blatantly displaying their religious and cultural affiliations. But overall, the discourse on identity is what dominates a lot of the conversations, discourses on capitalism or social harmony are the exception rather than the norm.

The economic consequences are  that businesses often rely on identity as much as they rely on business common sense. In a lot of Middle Eastern countries, finding alcohol is akin to hunting and gathering, restaurants reflect local and national consumer trends and tend to discourage group visits, any items that offend national identity tend to be kept far away from the naked eye. Having a cup of coffee with a  buddy is a strange concept in the Middle East, and unless related in some way you will not be invited for lunch of a cup of coffee. Outsiders also tend to be kept out or strictly monitored in the economic system.

Now to political structures of Middle Eastern countries. Religious and regional identity is what dominates political circles and politicians tend to try to build their legacy around identity issues rather than around economic, security or social issues. Identity is dominant in political discourse. As budgets are running low, any discourse on the economy, security or social issues would be at the politician's disadvantage.

Now to international relations. Security concerns are a direct result of the identity indoctrination. Parents and society tend to rely on acquiring a proper identity rather than on making sure children gain skills that are marketable in the economy. This means a lot of young people raised to acquire an identity rather than skills. The internet has also helped leaders try to gain territory by federating people on their side based on identity, namely Iran. Iran has tried to build a common Shia front in Iraq and Syria and to federate people not based on the promise of good jobs and career advancement, but based on the need to practice their religion “at home” rather than “as outsiders.”

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