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Eureka: A fireside chat about Middle Eastern contemporary affairs
by Joseph Gatt
2018-05-14 07:40:48
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If you're sitting at a café, the Middle East will be the region everyone pretends to be an expert at. Yet a lot of times people know little else that the region spans from Morocco to Afghanistan, that the region is predominantly Muslim, that there's a lot of oil, that terrorism is a problem and that there's a decades old conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

I'm conscious about not having you spend too much time on this fireside chat. So in this fireside chat I will, somewhat briefly, discuss the political, social and cultural aspects of the Middle East that you probably had not heard about, or that you had briefly touched upon in the past.

midea0001_400When population growth can't keep up with economic growth

The average woman in the Middle East will give birth to three to seven children depending on what Middle Eastern country the average woman happens to be located in. This has several implications.

-At the government level, this means constantly keeping up with the costs of feeding, educating and nursing a population that can not be economically productive, namely children.

-At the government level this also means the government tends to take few economic risks, meaning most economies are monocultural, that is rely heavily on a single product for export. For most countries, oil and gas are the main export. For others, agriculture and tourism are the main source of revenue. The government can't take risks with loans or other capitalist risks, because that would mean ending up with widespread poverty and street children.

-Despite the GDP rising considerably in many Middle Eastern countries, population growth basically means most countries are in constant recession. That is the per capita GDP tends to be receding while the GDP tends to grow.

-Socially, having large families means that families need a lot of time nursing and feeding children, which means that very little time is dedicated to education, entertainment and culture.

Monocultural economies

A lot of Middle Eastern economies are monocultural economies and rely either on oil and gas production or on agriculture and tourism for most of its revenue. This has several political, economic and social implications as well.

-Having only one product as the main source of revenue means governments tend to be highly centralized, take most decisions regarding the budget, and control almost all spheres of public life, since anyone who needs funds would have to go through government institutions.

-Economically, this means there are very few employers in the country, as most employers depend on government budgets to a large extent.

-Governments tend to discourage other sources of revenue or outsiders from investing in the country. The government tends to want to remain centralized and have a single source of income and revenue. Only in times of cash shortages do governments start encouraging the private sector, only to back off when the sources of cash come flowing back in.

-Regarding the education system and human resources, the government has tended to copy European or North American education systems, often training individuals in majors and specialities that have no practical applications in the monocultural economy.

Why is there a brain drain?

A lot of reports claim that the brain drain costs millions or billions of dollars to Middle Eastern economies. Middle Eastern economies do lose a lot of money training individuals in specialities that have no practical application in the country. But because there are no practical applications for a lot of the specialities, there is no real money lost from individuals leaving the country. As the government tends to be centralized, doctors have little control over where they can work and what tasks they can perform, lawyers tend to mainly focus on family law and family disputes, while anthropologists, sociologists or historians are wasting their time in countries where people spend too much time raising children and little time reading books. Engineers have no machines to fix, and tourism majors tend to end up as glorified waiters in touristic resorts. So naturally, when those educated can leave the country, they tend to leave the country.

Excesses of the olligarchy and income redistribution

As I said, population growth is the main reason while the GDP may be growing, the per capita GDP tends to be receding. The government tends to control the inflow of cash from exports of oil, gas, agriculture or tourism while a group of cronies tend to use some of the cash to export manufactured goods from foreign countries. This is why there tends to be a great deal of speculation among Middle Easterners on the excesses of the government and the olligarchy, including some of their lavish spending in European capitals and ownership of a plethora of luxury goods. Anyone who dares write anything concrete on the topic tends to get in trouble with the law.

The informal economy, loan sharks and illegal immigration

Because the government tends to have such a large grip on the economy, a lot of the economy relies on the informal sector. Need medication? You'll have to buy a lot of it on the black market. Need some kind of operation or medical treatment. Again, you'll have to go to an underground hospital. Want to go to a pub, eat or drink your favorite food or drinks? Again a lot of the pubs and restaurants are underground. Want to go to a nightclub, or need foreign currency? You'll find all that in the black market. Same goes for cement, construction equipment, cell phones, shoes and clothing items and yes, even postage stamps. Need a loan? You'll get one in the black market. 

Tabloid journalism

I love Middle Eastern journalism. Lots of pictures, short articles, and long sections of European football and world politics. If you want to know anything about the Middle East, you will see a lot of pictures of Middle Eastern leaders with foreign leaders, with very short articles briefly explaining the meetings between their leaders and foreign leaders. The rest is news on construction projects or business projects, but no citizen news really. You then have large sections on international politics, domestic and European football.

The absence of an entertainment industry

As I explained before, families raising 3 to 7 children don't really have time for reading, watching a movie, going to the theater or going to a concert. There are a few famous musicians, some soap operas and some movies are made, but the budgets for such creations tend to be very low. Like Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, you will probably have a neighbor who is a high profile actor or singer, and can meet them at the local coffee shop. There's no equivalent of Beverley Hills in the Middle East. I've seen several Middle Eastern singers and actors fly economy class, and their guitars looked old. 

Football and regional politics

In the highly centralized governments that Middle Eastern countries have, regional politics tend to be a big no-no. Regional differences and cultures exist, but they tend to be repressed. Regional politics are often led by members of the governing clans. The only salient feature of regional cultures tend to be their football or soccer teams, and a lot of regions will identify to their local football team. Football can in many cases lead to rivalries between regions. If a small region has a big football team, the small region will tend to be derided by rival bigger regions with bigger football teams. A football team losing can also be an excuse for rioting, when the riots are really economic.

The notional education system

Since food and housing are the main urgent hot potatoes governments tend to deal with, education tends to be relegated to a non-priority. Schools lack funds, teachers have late wages, chairs and tables are sometimes decades old, some schools don't have washrooms and some schools haven't been painted in decades. In some cases classrooms can lack and teachers have to fight to be allowed to use a classroom, and one teacher has to give up teaching that class altogether. Schedule changes are frequent and so are teacher changes. A lot of the curriculum is borrowed from Europe or North America and does not fit the local political, economic or social realities. A lot of focus is put on math, history and religious education, and a lot of the focus is on correct vs. incorrect knowledge. When I was a teacher a lot of my students would tell me “you should never say don't, you should say do not” as if “don't” weren't part of the ten commandments.

A quick cultural note. A foreign English teacher was teaching in Sudan when she made the classroom adopt a teddy bear and called the teddy bear “Mohamed”. That was a huge cultural blunder for several reasons. In Islamic countries, animals are considered inferior beings and you can't be friends, let alone adopt an animal, be it a dog, a cat or a bear. Stuffed animals are also considered an abomination by many. So when you give a name to an animal, it better be something either foreign or inferior. You can name your dog “dirt” or “smelly” but certainly not call it a human name. Also, the theory of evolution according to which humans evolved from the apes in considered an abomination by many Islamic scholars, including geneticists or biologists.

The science of unemployment, when applying for a job is a sign of weakness

Since the government and sources of revenue are highly centralized, a lot of jobs won't be advertised. Job advertisements in the Middle East tend to center around small, very small businesses who have little or no experience hiring. Most contracts will be paid by the hour, pay tends to be late and work is scarce. Plus there is a culture in the Middle East of not openly looking for a job, because applying for a job tends to be viewed as a sign of weakness in the Middle East. Most people will apply for jobs as soon as they finish high school or college, never to apply again. Nor will they be telling their friends or family that they are looking for a job. Most jobs tend to have little structure in them, emotional outbursts, bullying and psychological warfare are common at the workplace. Parents, family, friends and colleagues often see nothing wrong with the bullying and think it's acceptable for a boss or a colleague to be a bully. 

When culture segregates men and women

The only place you can really go to outside your house in most Middle Eastern countries is the coffee shop or tea shop, most of which are segregated and don't allow women in. Very few places allow men and women to hang out, mostly a few fast-food joints. Couples are discouraged from going to the fast-food joint and will tend to go there with a group of friends. Pubs and night clubs exist, but tend to be underground. Concerts and events exist, but they are rarely advertised, and when they are advertised, no one really tells you where the event is located or where you can purchase tickets.

Flame wars are common on Middle Eastern social media, which also tends to be heavily segregated. Men will tend to discuss politics and football, often engaging in ethnic and regional flame wars, while women will tend to focus on fashion and shopping.

The internet – with an Islamic cultural touch

Profile pictures on social media are rare and most people use fake names, because Islamic culture values modesty and profile pictures tend to be viewed as a sign of lack of modesty. A lot of commenters on social media can be very aggressive or sarcastic or both, so most people won't post private pictures of themselves or their families. Fake profiles are very common, including the fake profiles of Western women where men pretend to hit on other Middle Eastern men and see how far the romance can go. Many Middle Eastern men and women will be desperate to leave the country, and will try to meet romantic partners in Europe or North America and hope they can end up marrying the partner.

Development models, are we looking at Brazil, Korea or China or an alternative model?

Brazil has the kind of development model which benefited very few people and there is no middle class. In China, a little more people benefited from development and there is a small middle class. South Korea has a larger middle class.

So will Middle Eastern development lead to a small middle class, a larger middle class or a large middle class? As long as fertility rates will be high and the per capita GDP will keep receding, it will be very difficult for most Middle Eastern countries to build larger middle classes. Plus Middle Eastern states tend to be very centralized, bureaucratic and free enterprise tends to be very limited. Access to loans tends to be non-existant and few loans are repaid when they exist. Real estate prices and production prices are high, consumer confidence and disposable income is low, meaning it's hard for any free enterprise to make significant profit.  

Conclusion: the future of the Middle East

Will the Middle East become something like Nigeria, something like Brazil, something like India or something more like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan? That is will the Middle East become fertile land for the informal economy and the rule of gangs like Nigeria, or something more like with a formal economy but ruled by gangs like Brazil, or something with both formal and informal economies, and a mixture of safety and rule by gangs like India, or a country with a formal economy but few gangs, and relatively safe like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. That is the Middle East can focus on developing its formal economy while eliminating gangs rising from the informal economy, but will still have to deal with a number of economic problems, including high unemployment and budget mismanagement.


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