A trillion-dollar catalyst for change in the Arab World

The Middle East's oil wealth has the potential to become the key driver for change and innovation in

At the end of the 19th Century, Lord Curzon, the then British Viceroy of India, described Iran and its Arab neighbours as "pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the domination of the world".

Throughout history, the geostrategic importance of the Middle East, with its immense oil wealth, has shaped the policies of colonial empires, secured the longevity of autocratic regimes and given rise to religious elites. The 'game of chess', as described by Lord Curzon, promises great riches and influence for the players involved, but has often come at a huge cost for the majority of the Arab people.

Indeed, oil wealth, so narrowly shared between the region's ruling minorities, has historically presented a barrier to democracy and left a vacuum of inequality and lost opportunities in many Arab societies. It is no coincidence that the citizens of Arab countries with limited fossil fuel reserves have enjoyed greater freedom over the years than their oil-rich neighbours.

Now, however, the uprisings of the Arab Spring present a unique opportunity to use the wealth of the region to reinvest in the future prosperity and wellbeing of the Arab people. It is an opportunity which must be grasped before history repeats itself and, as with recent events in Cairo, the transition to democracy is derailed.

Fuelling progress

While the Arab world is no stranger to revolution - Egypt, 1952, Iran, 1979 - this time around the stakes are higher than ever. With oil prices climbing to above $100/barrel, the Arab Peninsula is currently generating export oil revenues of $1 trillion dollars a year. But the conventional reserves and production capacities of oil-rich Arab countries are finite and slowly depleting. This means there is a narrowing window of opportunity to leverage the region's resources for the benefit of the people.

What's more, the ease of wealth creation from oil readily attracts those whose sole interests lie in personal profit, religious agenda or geopolitical power. If such forces emerge triumphant from the Arab Spring, oil wealth will continue to line the pockets of the few, rather than meet the needs of the many.

With these scenarios in mind, the new emerging Arab leadership needs to create genuine democratic expectations as a bulwark against corruption and oligarchy. In many countries across the region, the euphoria of revolution will soon give way to the on-the-ground realities of reconstruction. Amid the many challenges and complexities of state-building, it is critical that these countries recalibrate their socio-economic systems in a way that provides enhanced economic and human prosperity.

Diversification and development

The new Arab leadership also need to focus on transforming oil-based economies into information-based economies supported by firm democratic foundations and social equity. And this can only be achieved through the reinvestment of petrodollars into manufacturing, technology and intellectual capital. The development of mass-transit systems, solar energy conversion, water desalination or passive cooling technologies, for example, will be of long-term value to Arab societies, providing new employment and export opportunities in a warming world.

By harnessing the region's potential for alternative energy from sunlight, and by enhancing their non-oil based productive capacity, countries will be able to project themselves onto a path of sustainable and inclusive economic development. The decentralisation of oil wealth will also break up governments' ownership of petrodollar wealth and lead to improved transparency, good governance and trust among the Arab people.

Levelling the playing field

The Middle East's oil wealth, then, has the potential to become the key driver for change and innovation in Arab countries. To ensure a more sustainable model for the future, states' natural resource wealth should be saved for export, and foreign oil companies should only be awarded oil contracts once they partake in third-party monitored bidding rounds.

But other issues also need to be addressed to enable long-term wealth creation in the region - not least the record number of 75 million illiterate adults, the fatal mismatch within the labour market and, most importantly, the gender inequality in both education and employment. At present, 50 per cent of the talent base is excluded from society and the workplace, and the Middle East's long-term growth strategy must address all parts of an inclusive wealth-creation framework. Such a strategy should be based on a home-grown path for change, and provide inclusive and broadly shared development gains. One trillion dollars a year could serve as sufficient investment to achieve these goals.

In Egypt, we've already seen how easily interim leaders can renege on their promises. Without doubt, new governments with old mindsets will undermine all progress made so far in the Arab Spring. For this reason, the calls for democracy, transparency and accountability currently sweeping the region need to be answered with genuine commitment. If they are not, the sacrifices and achievements of the younger Arab generation will be squandered. Leaders must also take a long-term approach to the management of oil wealth to ensure the region can meet the challenges of food and water shortages, rising population levels and global warming.

The Arab Spring presents an opportunity not only to reset the pieces on the chessboard, but to level the playing field entirely. The new Arab leadership needs to show strength and vision to take this opportunity in the months ahead.

Tara Shirvani and Sir David King
Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution