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Zero Hour in the Middle East: What the Arab World's Past Can Tell Us About Its Future


Part 5: A Marshall Plan for the Arab World?

Photo Gallery: A Century of Conflicts in the Middle East Photos

"Nasserism is dead, Baathism has failed and militant Islam is approaching its bloody end. Long live Arab capitalism!" Egyptian author Youssef Ibrahim proclaimed six years ago. He was sitting in his apartment in Dubai, gazing out at the construction sites in a city that, like no other, symbolized the entrepreneurial spirit that had taken hold in the Arab world at the time.

The boom, triggered in part by rising oil prices following the Iraq war, had attracted hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, Moroccans, Palestinians and Lebanese to the Gulf. Many were young men like IT specialist Wael Ghonim who, as a Google employee, was to play a key role in the Egyptian revolution.

When they returned home, they brought two things with them: their hard-earned income as engineers, bookkeepers and hotel administrators, and a new worldview devoid of the narrow-mindedness and limitations of their native countries. "For years, all that guest workers brought home from Saudi Arabia were religious robes and fanatical ideologies," said Youssef Ibrahim. "But from Dubai they bring home blue jeans for their wives, tank tops, mobile phones and the knowledge of how to make money."

It took the sluggish regimes in the Western part of the Arab world a while to adjust to the changes. But then it all happened it very quickly. Especially the ruling elites who, as in Egypt and Tunisia, had divided up their countries' key industries amongst themselves, wanted to cash in on the economic upturn. Within a few years, the stock markets in cities like Cairo, Amman and Tunis were booming. Lots of money was being made in the upper echelons of society, but none of it trickled down to the lower classes. Neoliberalism had reached the Middle East. It was Reaganomics under palm trees.

A Nice View

Men like steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, a close friend of Mubarak's son Gamal, who has since been arrested, built skyscrapers on the banks of the Nile that could compete with the towers of Dubai and Doha. All the workers in the socialist-run government businesses had was a nice view.

"How is it that everyone who has protection at the top can get a great job without any effort," young doctor Rana Khalifa asked at the time, "while I have to slave away in the emergency room for a base salary of €30, and should be happy to have found work in the first place?" A feeling of fundamental social injustice began to spread. It would prove to be precisely the same feeling that drove young Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi to set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010. It was a deep rage that had been building for years that triggered the Arab revolutions.

Indeed, the most urgent question of the hour is not whether the Islamists or secular parties come to power in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and later perhaps Syria and Jordan. The most urgent question is: Who will solve the enormous economic problems of these countries, and who will close the gaping prosperity divide? More than half of the population in the Maghreb countries is younger than 30. Who will create the 700,000 jobs that are needed in Egypt alone to provide wages and food for the students graduating from school in a single year?

It is obvious that the countries of the Middle East cannot perform this task alone, no matter who is in charge. In addition to the rich oil-producing countries, the West, and particularly neighboring Europe, should step up to the plate.

When the United States looked to the devastated old continent after World War II, it recognized the historic challenge that lay ahead. It wasn't enough that the fascist regimes had been defeated. The Europeans needed help to prevent new wars, civil wars and refugee crises from developing. To tackle the challenge, Washington created the Marshall Plan, the biggest civil aid program of all time. In 1948, the US Congress approved a four-year budget of $13 billion for the program. It was the foundation on which a peaceful and secure continent would be built. Clever Americans are thinking in terms of similarly large, even massive terms today. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for example, proposes using the radical changes in the Middle East as an opportunity to finally free the West and the Arab world from the curse of oil.

Thoroughly European Perspective

It sounds like a paradoxical idea. How is the Arab world to survive if it loses almost its only resource? Taken a step further, however, what Friedman proposes reveals a completely different and thoroughly European perspective.

Two years ago, at the instigation of the Club of Rome, a consortium of German, French, Italian and British companies founded a giant infrastructure project called Desertec. The goal of what is probably today's most ambitious energy project is the construction of solar thermal power plants in the Middle East and North Africa that would produce electricity for the region and, in the long term, meet Europe's energy needs, as well.

Precise cost estimates have been made for the project. The German Aerospace Center anticipates a total investment of €400 billion by 2050 -- Europe's Marshall Plan for North Africa.

Prince Hassan Bin Talal, the uncle of Jordan's King Abdullah II, calls for a project of similar dimensions, a regional fund to which the super-rich sheikhs of the Gulf, among others, would contribute. Alms, says the prince, are part of the cultural bedrock of Islam. The fund would promote uniform development of the entire region, which is precisely what the Marshall Plan achieved in Western Europe after World War II.

Politics and Billions

The prince also hopes to borrow another concept from Europe. Just as Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet founded the European Coal and Steel Community, the nucleus of European unity which ultimately grew into today's European Union, a multinational institution needs to be established in the region that would address its water and energy supply.

But these are all future projects. More pressing is the concern over who will provide immediate assistance and who can help the new leaders survive their first few weeks in power.

When German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle traveled to Tunisia a few days after the revolution, he promised the country €3.2 million to prepare its first elections. It was a moving gesture, given the challenges Tunisia's new leadership faces.

And it was also a misunderstanding. It is no longer a matter of gestures and millions in the Middle East. Instead, it is a matter of politics -- and billions.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Graphic: Middle East conflicts since 1945 Zoom

Graphic: Middle East conflicts since 1945

Libya Interactive
The Battle for Libya: Towns, Tribes and Oil Fields

The Arab World's Path to Freedom
1916 -- Spheres of Influence
The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between the United Kingdom and France lays out their respective spheres of influence in the Middle East after World War I.
1916-1918 -- Arab Revolt
Revolt on the Arabian Peninsula against the Ottoman Empire, backed by the British.
1917 -- Ottoman Defeat
The Ottomans are defeated by the British in Mesopotamia and withdraw. The Balfour Declaration promises the Jewish people a "national home" in Palestine.
1918 -- End of World War I
The victorious powers in World War I occupy a large portion of the Ottoman Empire. Yemen is given its independence.
1920 -- France in the Middle East
Syria and the Lebanon become French-mandated territory.
1921 -- The British in Iraq
Iraq becomes a constitutional monarchy under a British mandate.
1923 -- Turkey Replaces the Ottomans
The Turkish Republic is established. In 1928, leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk does away with Islam as the state religion.
1932 -- Wahhabism on the Peninsula
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is founded; King Ibn Saud advocates Wahhabism.
1946 -- Freedom for Jordan
Transjordan gains its freedom. In 1950 the state is renamed as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
1948 -- A Jewish Homeland
The state of Israel is founded.
1951 -- Independent Libya
Libya declares its independence; King Idris I rules as a constitutional monarch until Moammar Gadhafi takes over after a coup d'état in 1969.
1952 -- Revolution in Egypt
The "Free Officers Movement" launches a coup of its own in Egypt, overthrowing King Farouk I. Gamal Abdel Nasser becomes president, a position he holds until 1970.
1953 -- The Arrival of the Shah
The CIA helps overthrow the lawfully-elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. He is replaced by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who remains in charge until 1979.
1954 -- War in Algeria
War breaks out in Algeria, lasting until 1962. The Algerian "National Liberation Front" takes up arms against France in its fight for independence.
1956 -- Free of France
Morocco and Tunisia win their freedom from France.
1967 -- Six Days of War
In the Six Day War, Israel conquers the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and East Jerusalem.
1978 -- Egypt and Israel
The Camp David Accords are signed by Israeli leader Menachem Begin and Anwar El Sadat of Egypt following summit meetings with US President Jimmy Carter.
1979 -- Iranian Revolution
Revolution in Iran leads to the founding of the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. Israel and Egypt sign a separate peace treaty; Israel gradually hands back the Sinai in a process lasting until 1982.
1980-1988 -- War in the Desert
The Iran-Iraq War leaves up to half a million people dead.
1981 -- Extremism in Egypt
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is assassinated by Islamist army officers.
1987 -- Palestinian Unrest
The First Intifada begins in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
1991 -- Pushing Iraq Back
Under the leadership of the US, an international alliance liberates the Gulf state of Kuwait after it was invaded by Iraq.
2003 -- Saddam's Fall
The USA and its allies attack Iraq once more, this time toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein.
2011 -- The Arrival of Democracy?
Pro-democracy revolts break out in the Middle East. Some rulers are overthrown, others introduce new political freedoms.

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