How the economic policies of a corrupt elite caused the Arab Spring

Living standards in the region must rise if the political momentum is to be kept up.

Six months ago a Tunisian street seller started what is now known as the "Arab Spring" by setting himself on fire. However, although the immediate motivation behind his gesture was anger at the confiscation of his market stall, the economic causes of recent events in the Middle East have still received relatively little attention. However, many analysts believe that economic stagnation has been an important driving force behind the demands for political change, and that political and economic reform has to take place simultaneously.

One expert who has extensively studied the interaction between development and politics in the Middle East is Dr Ali Kadri, the former Head of the Economic Analysis Section of the United Nations regional office in Beirut. Dr Kadri sees recent events in the Middle East as the culmination of decades of under development, and in some cases de-development, fuelled by failed economic policies and broken institutions. He points out that between 1971 to 2000 overall economic growth in the Arab world was negative, with the real GDP per capita of Gulf Countries contracting by 2.8% annually.

At the same time inequality has increased, further squeezing the incomes of middle-class and working families. Although most Middle Eastern countries attempt to hide the extent of these problems by refusing to carry out the necessary surveys, unofficial reports suggest that the region is more unequal than even Africa or Latin America. According to the University of Texas Inequality Project, Qatar, Oman and Egypt had Gini coefficients of 55, 52 and 50 respectively in 2002, one of the highest levels in the world.

Kadri believes that these problems have been compounded through patronage. Lacking democratic legitimacy, "regimes in the region have used public sector employment to generate consent via clientelism... shifting the accent away from development". Although he believes that a degree of government ownership may be necessary in the short-run, many of the state-run firms that dominate most Middle Eastern economies are focused on creating make-work jobs rather than productive goods.

These views are increasingly recognised by other organisations. In the case of Egypt, a US State Department document three years ago noted "the military's strong influence in Egypt's economy" and that "military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries". Similarly, a study by the World Bank of the Egyptian financial system found that because a significant portion of bank credit went to state companies, "family owned firms and small and medium enterprises rely heavily on the informal market".

These policies have resulted in high rates of unemployment and under-employment, especially among the young. According to the International Labour Office, less than half those of working age in the Middle East are actually in employment, with youth unemployment over four times the adult rate. Even in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, 30.2% of those between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed. Kadri believes that "those protesting want a dignified living and good schools for their children".

Kadri believes that corruption, and regional conflict, which many analysts believe are consequences of dictatorships, have made it hard for firms to think beyond the short-term. Kadri notes that the dearth of domestic investment opportunities has meant that much of the wealth generated by rising commodity prices over the last decade has gone abroad. He also suggests that the growing gap between savings and investment rates has been instrumental in producing financial bubbles, such as the speculative frenzy surrounding property and office construction in Dubai, which came to a dramatic end three years ago.

Kadri is relatively optimistic about the future of the region, suggesting that the collapse of autocrats, like Ben Ali in Tunisia, will allow the population, rather than the elites, to determine the course of development for the first time. His conclusions are supported by World Bank research which found that the existence of an independent civil society was the most important factor in determining whether countries in Central and Eastern Europe were able to make a quick and successful economic transition after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

However, although the long-term prospects of those in countries currently making the transition to democracy may be positive, this is of little comfort where the regime is willing to brutally crush dissent, as in Syria. Even in Egypt, there are signs that Mubarak's machine is silently reconstituting itself, although its creator is now in jail. Although the G-8 has announced $40bn in economic support, much of this will come from Gulf Countries who have little interest in economic and political change. This prompts the question of what else western countries can do to make sure the political momentum generated by the "Arab Spring" continues and is able to result in rising living standards for all those in the region.

Matthew Partridge is a freelance journalist and a PhD student at the London School of Economics.

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The need for responsible investment banking with a strong regional focus

Let’s begin by stating the problem: there’s a lack of long-term investment in the UK economy, both in infrastructure and in the capital needed to run productive businesses.  That counts double at a regional level across the country. This is an old song to be sure, but that doesn’t detract from its reality.  And with the main fallout from Brexit likely to be a decline in foreign direct investment, the investment gap is only going to get worse.

For example, the OECD think tank estimates an annual infrastructure investment of 3.5% of GDP is necessary in developed economies to maintain competitiveness, never mind boost it.  Currently, public sector infrastructure investment in the UK is forecast to reach to be 1.4% of GDP in 2020/21 – and that’s with the increase in capital spending offered in the Autumn Statement.

The curious thing, though, is that there is no actual shortage of capital.  In fact, in the City, there is probably the world’s biggest pot of footloose cash just looking for an investment opportunity. Which suggests that the failure to invest in UK Plc has more to do with the financial plumbing that anything else. Which brings us to investment banks and their role in the economy.

Today’s high street retail banks – the sort you keep your current account with – make their money from mortgage lending and hidden charges on overdraft facilities. The last thing they do is risk lending money to industry or for long-term infrastructure projects. That’s where dedicated investment banks come in.  Their job is to organise the financial plumbing that channels risk capital from its owner through to companies or infrastructure projects, using any means necessary: underwriting share issues, creating consortia to build windfarms, brokering mergers, managing funds, or selling advice.

To cut to the chase: the UK is suffering a blocked financial pipeline.  Our local investment banking system is in crisis.  Post the 2008 Credit Crunch, domestic banks in the UK – Barclays excepted - have been in wholesale flight from investment banking, which is perceived as having been the cause of their ruin. Certainly derivatives trading allied to insane levels of inter-bank lending formed the detonator of the 2008 implosion. And some institutions – notably HBOS – leveraged themselves to unsustainable levels in order to invest in the latter stages of a commercial property bubble whose eventual collapse was obvious to anyone but a banker. 

But the retreat from investment banking activities by UK firms brings problems. First it implies handing over the keys to investment banking and capital supply to Wall Street. Second, if Donald Trump launches his proffered $1trillion infrastructure investment plan for America, there will be a capital flight from the UK and Europe. All of which suggests that Britain needs to make its own arrangements for capital provision through a reformed and expanded domestic investment banking sector or see UK productivity continue to flat-line.

That’s not to say there aren’t questions still to be asked about the ethical behaviour of investment banks. The five biggest global investment banks operating in the UK regularly contrive to pay no corporation tax locally, despite making billions in profits.  Name and shame: I mean JP Morgan, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank AG, Nomura Holding and Morgan Stanley.  But without a domestic UK investment banking sector, we are still going to be ripped off.

There is even more of a problem in the regions and nations that make up Britain.  If anything, regional inequality in the UK has worsened since 2010, with London becoming more, not less economically dominant despite the financial crash. The most recent data show that London’s share of Gross Value Added (GVA) increased from 21.5% in 2010 to 22.6% in 2014, while GVA per head also grew quicker in London than elsewhere.  But regional stock exchanges have long since vanished meaning that what capital is available – for growing companies or local infrastructure needs – is stashed in London and won’t go north in a hurry.

There is no single solution to this set of problems so let’s experiment with trying to create various new bits of financial plumbing. First, accept we need an investment banking sector. Next, let’s create some domestic competition in the sector. RBS has spent too much time chasing its tail and downsizing. It’s time RBS recovered its mojo and went back into the investment banking business. Besides, that is probably the only way it is ever going to start generating real profits again.  All it takes is for UKFI, its public owner, to tell CEO Ross McEwan to change course.

We can also unlock domestic capital specifically for safe, long-term infrastructure projects. Here the problem is Solvency II, the new EU regulations governing the capital requirements for the insurance sector and the pension funds they manage. UK pension funds invest an estimated 1% of their total assets in infrastructure. But this is very low compared with funds in Australia and Canada, where 8-15% of assets are invested in infrastructure.  The problem, complain UK insurers, is that the Prudential Conduct Authority is over-interpreting Solvency II and treating the industry as if it were a dodgy bank.  If capital requirements imposed by the PRA on UK insurers were eased, there would be more capital to invest in local infrastructure.

One possible hard solution to the regional investment gap comes from the New Economics Foundation in conjunction with Common Weal, a pro-independence Scottish think tank.  They are pushing the SNP Government at Holyrood to create a Scottish National Investment Bank and have published a detailed blueprint as to how it could work. Using Scottish Government figures for job creation from capital investment, their joint report states that such an investment bank could directly support the creation of 50,000 jobs “within just a few years of being established”.

Investment banking has become a dirty word since 2008. It’s actually a necessary part of the financial furniture.  The trick is to make it work properly. And for that to happen, politicians and regulators have to be pro-active.

Barclays has commissioned a report ‘‘What have the Capital Markets ever done for us? And how could they do it better?’’ by New Financial with the hope to start a debate about the value of capital markets to the economy, especially in the UK. Many thanks go to those who joined us at our events with New Statesman so to examine the report’s findings in detail.

For the previous feature in the series, see Alison McGovern’s Why we must maintain the highest standards in banking in the new political landscape.

George Kerevan is the SNP Member of Parliament for East Lothian.