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The Multidimensional Character of the Arab Revolutions, Part 3

This is Part 3 of a 5 part series.
Watch for Part 4 on Monday, July 25, 2011. Read Parts 1-2 by clicking the
link in the Related Articles box below this article.

Mordu Serry-Kamal

Model Two: Growing Rift between Rich and Poor
In this model, Hourani made a series of observations regarding the allocation of economic resources to the populations in the Arab countries. Significant examples of these observations follow.

  • The gap between rich and poor, which “had of course always existed,” was “growing wider in most Arab countries” despite the fact that there was: economic growth, as a result of the increase in profits from the sale of oil; an increase in bank loans and grants; increased domestic investments; and remittances or financial resources sent by migrant workers to their relatives. In other words, the irony was, as economic growth increased the gap between the rich and the poor also increased.
  • The governments spent a large amount of the proceeds from economic development on the purchase of military hardware, “mainly from the USA and western Europe.”
  • “Almost everywhere the most neglected sector was the agricultural” [sector], even though the vast majority of the populations resided in villages or the rural areas where agriculture had usually been predominant.
  • The neglect of the agricultural sector produced the following outcomes: “In Saudi Arabia, 58 per cent of the economically active population lived in the countryside but produced only 10 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product [GDP];” in Egypt, 52 per cent of the population lived in the countryside but produced only 28 per cent of the GDP; and finally, these imbalances created a situation whereby, in the 1970’s, “a large proportion of food consumed in the Arab countries was imported.”
  • Economic growth did not raise the living standards of the mass population because the rate of growth in the population surpassed the ability of the governments to provide for the welfare of their people; in addition to the fact that, “the political and social systems of most Arab countries did not provide for a more equal distribution of the proceeds of production.”
  • As a result of the neglect of the agricultural sector and the opportunities which urban areas appeared to promise, urban populations increased dramatically through mass migrations from the countryside. These migrations caused the following urban population concentration in the 1970’s: more than 50 per cent of the populations of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Algeria lived in cities; between 40 to 50 per cent of the populations of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria also lived in cities; and by the mid-1970’s, over a million people inhabited approximately eight Arab cities in which some of the most heavily inhabited ones were Cairo [Egypt] with a population of 6.4 million and Baghdad [Iraq] with a population of 3.8 million.
  • The combination of the increased rate of economic growth and the rapid rate of urban migration by the economically destitute, also led to an increased level of polarization between the rich and poor. Specifically, the beneficiaries of economic growth were the elites in society: the political leadership, the military officers, higher-level government officials, technicians, various types of businessmen, and skilled industrial workers. Those who benefited less or not at all included: small employees, small traders, those who work for the rich, “those employed in the informal sector,” and the unemployed.
  • In the countryside, medium and large-size landowners could cultivate their land profitably because they had access to credit, which was not available to small landowners.
  • The migrant workers in the oil-producing states had no job security because they could not engage in collective bargaining with their employers. This situation meant that they could be arbitrarily terminated and be replaced by non-Arab labor from Asia and other parts of Africa, who were willing to accept the prevailing conditions of employment.
  • Housing in the large cities was cheap and deplorable. For example, “in most cities the water and drainage systems had been constructed for smaller communities, and could not cope with the demands of a larger population.”
  • Public transportation was deplorable as well, making travel from place to place a rather tedious enterprise for those who could not afford to secure private transportation.

The economic model reveals a number of trends the combination of which eventually drove a large number of people to make the sacrifices they deemed necessary in an attempt to alter the status quo. These trends will be analyzed.

One, according to Karl E. Case and Ray C. Fair, in their 2003 textbook entitled, Principles of Macroeconomics, economic growth is defined as an increase in the total output of an economy. This increased output of goods and services in an economy, assuming that output grows faster than the population, should ultimately translate to the availability of employment opportunities and a commensurate increase in the standards of living of the population. This simple macroeconomic principle was not operational in this case because, as the model above has suggested, population growth exceeded economic growth, in addition to the fact that there were inequities built into the distribution of the proceeds from economic growth. The overall impact of this situation was, of course, the creation of large numbers of economically-deprived groups that became an integral part of the Arab revolutions.

Two, the governments appeared to have had their public finance priorities confused when, according to the model, they spent large sums of the proceeds from economic growth in securing foreign armaments in an effort to boost their military capabilities. This writer understands the security issues that may have been of concern to these Arab governments prompting them to behave in this manner; for example, their volatile relationship with the state of Israel with which they have fought several wars, and also the political issues that surround the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Nevertheless, a primary function of government is to address the welfare of its people, a significant responsibility which some of these governments appeared to have neglected. Using the model as a guide, therefore, the writer states that more funding should have been allocated toward addressing the issues of housing, the water and drainage systems, and mass transit facilities in order to accommodate population explosion in the cities.

Three, the neglect of the agricultural sector was a major mistake because it contributed significantly toward the rural population’s mass migration to the cities, as the partially employed and unemployed searched for economic opportunities that were no longer available in the countryside. This sudden population concentration posed a serious challenge to the governments which appeared ill-prepared to address effectively the social and economic needs of these new urban dwellers. The result of this situation was urban congestion, unemployment, and poverty among a myriad of other forms of social malaise. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Arab revolutions were, by and large, concentrated in the urban areas of these countries.

Four, even in the major oil-producing countries, to which some of the poor Arabs have managed to obtain employment, the situation pertaining to their conditions of work was also deplorable. This is so because, according to the model, a lack of the ability to organize labor unions in an effort to embark on collective bargaining meant that, primarily, Arab workers had no rights and as a result were not only disposable at a moment’s notice, but that they would have no control over wages paid, conditions of work, and other personnel issues. Moreover, the fact that other workers, who are desperate for work, from parts of Asia and Africa were willing and waiting to be offered positions, would imply that the Arab workers were in keen competition with this type of labor. Operating under such conditions, the Arab workers would be forced to accept the prevailing conditions of work just so that they can stay employed and are still able to send remittances home to their families.

Watch for Part 4 of this 5 part series next Monday, July 25, 2011.

Mordu Serry-Kamal is an associate
professor public administration and political science at Winston-Salem
State University in Winston-Salem, NC. Email: [email protected]

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