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Opinion: How much are the Arabs worth? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, right, on January 21, 2013, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia during the third Arab Economic, Social and Development Summit (AFP Photo/Fayez Nureldine)

Answering the question, “How much is the Arab region worth?” points us to statistics from the World Bank which suggest that the Arab region’s combined GDP is 2.5 trillion US dollars. This figure reflects the volume of economic activity of Arab societies, whose entire population is estimated at approximately 362 million. Half of this GDP comes from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, who boast some of the region’s strongest economies. In fact, some GCC countries enjoy some of the highest average per capita income levels in the world.

Based on these figures, the Arab world—whose collective GDP has jumped sharply in the past ten years—has outdone Southeast Asia, whose 11 countries have a collective GDP of approximately 2 trillion dollars. (At one point these countries were known as the “Asian tigers” due to the rapid economic growth they experienced.) The Arab world’s transformation is mainly due to the large increase in oil prices and oil export proceeds.

These figures reflect the Arab region’s huge economic power. Nevertheless, it is very much less than many industrial economies such as Spain whose GDP is over 1.3 trillion dollars and Germany whose GDP exceeds that of the entire Arab region by 1 trillion dollars. At the end of the day, these are just figures and do not represent the full truth since economic activity is, after all, a human one: with both quantifiable and unquantifiable aspects. Some of the latter include soft power elements such as a country’s cultural and civilizational contributions. Even in economics there are some activities which are not amenable to statistics.

In recent decades, a country’s strength has been measured mainly through the volume of its economic and commercial exchanges with the world and its ability to fulfil its population’s aspirations more so than its military power. This is a truth that has always been present in history but many have not given it the importance it deserves. According to some historians, Germany, which enthusiastically entered into World War I motivated by a national desire for hegemony, did not need to do so since at the time it boasted Europe’s most advanced and developed economy. These historians argue that Germany’s economic power would have allowed it to dominate its neighbors without the need to fire a single bullet. However, the convictions at the time were different and the view was that it was the number of troops and weapons and control you had on the ground that really determined how much power you had. As a result, Germany entered a destructive war which it lost along with its allies and emerged bankrupt with unprecedented inflation rates. This post-World War I state of affairs led to the eruption of World War II, which eventually produced a European order based on economic and commercial cooperation that proved beneficial for all. The presence of a vital economy that created a broad, educated middle class and built institutions instrumental to the development of the political sphere was key to the establishment and expansion of the Western democracies.

The Arab region has not been unaware of the significance that development holds for occupying a position on the global map. This is evidenced by Kuwait’s hosting the first Arab Economic Summit in 2010 that tried to push forward the prioritization of economic cooperation and building a joint economic system as the way forward for progress—before 2011 brought the Arab Spring revolutions and their aftermath to the region.

A large part of what happened—what the International Monetary Fund describes as the “Arab countries in transition”—was rooted in economic concerns primarily, as well as political demands, and was caused by failures to achieve comprehensive development—a particular cause of public anger. Moreover, a large part of the current fluid state of affairs and the turmoil and violence of the “transitional phases” in these countries is due to a failure in building proper institutions for the protection and development of society.

In short, the Arab region is worth more than the statistics suggest—if it chooses the appropriate way for development in order to activate its latent economic and social capabilities. And it is this that will lay the firm foundation for political development.