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?

"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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