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Crises, booms and paradoxes
BY Hichem Karoui October 15, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The world is a strange place. It is small, complicated, and fast changing. Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher, used to say: “You cannot swim twice in the same river.” Today’s world is that very river. Sociologists say about the societies of the Middle East, which happen to be the cradle of the ancient civilisations: they are “young.”

The description is paradoxical, yet true: the majority of the population is young; even the states are young. Nevertheless, there is such a weight of history, with ancestral traditions, religious rites, and old myths implanted in the minds and the behaviour on the one hand, and opposite trends carrying strong passions for modernity and post-modernity as a way of life and a way of thinking, on the other hand.

With the globalisation, the region is moving at an incredible speed from the grey slowness of the past to the colourful versatility of the future. This change is particularly visible in the Gulf region, which is adapting itself rapidly to the conditions of this new century, while “old Europe” (I say it without Rumsfeld’s innuendos) is striving hard for its survival under the pressures of a dangerous financial and social crisis.

In Europe, the crisis has become so stressing, that some people are already wondering whether these are not the premises of another “1929.”  Could the Eurozone collapse? Yes, say some observers, if the necessary measures are not taken in due time.

The crisis that started with small economies (Greece, Ireland,  Portugal) may well clutch into its vice Italia (member of G-7 and ranking at the third position as regards its debt right behind the United States and Japan), and Spain, and who knows who else! But what are these “necessary measures”? Here, the prognostics are as varied as there are Economic schools on the old continent... from the left to the right. The fear is this could be a structural crisis, requiring drastic and structural measures that could take years to bring about results. Meanwhile, what would happen?

Faced with the crisis, the governments would try to implement unpopular policies imposing sacrifices. The populations would react with anger. That may not only express itself in such uncontrolled moves of the population as that recently seen in Greece, Spain, and Great Britain, but mainly in a reinvigorating of the far-right movements. The hard social and economic conditions are the best loam for all kinds of extremism. The 1929’s crisis gave strength to communism, Nazism and fascism in Europe. In our days, the rise of the far-right movements in Europe is obvious and there were several reports and analyses monitoring the phenomenon. It is certainly something that has to be watched over the months to come.

When we think of the current crisis in Europe, we can hardly omit that the USA was the first to rush into it, blindfolded so to say. When Bush left office, the country was enduring its worst economic and financial crisis since decades. Despite many efforts, Obama seemed unable to readjust the balance; and what he did in the last bailout with the American debt was just winning time and delaying the solution of the problem. But until when? Here too, the fear is this is a structural crisis requiring drastic structural measures that may take years to bring about the expected results. Meanwhile, what would happen? The far-right would take over? Not necessarily. The USA is not Europe.

It is more dangerous, because if in Europe the far-right was for years almost marginalised, in the USA, it has been often integrated inside the system, through the conservative alliances within the Republican Party. In other words, the far-right has been in power in America several times, particularly under Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. The USA was then much more governed by its military-industrial complex than by its political elite. The result was expressed by an obvious increase in warfare and war making.

One does not wish to see Europe and the USA trying to “solve” their problems through false alliances and phony politics leading to wars. However, there are no coincidences in politics. If rapid and efficient solutions were not found to help the limp economies and relieve the most hurt by the depression, people would suffer more with the looming disaster.

Many would resort to the new right-wing “wizards” or charlatans, promising them paradise. Many would inflict themselves a harsh punishment   offering their country easily to the vultures of the xenophobic right-wing movements, in all good faith. They would understand the wrong they did only when it is too late.

To me, who came from Europe to the Gulf, and who sees how much efforts the people of this region are consenting to build their countries, with the help of experimented professionals from Europe and the USA, it is as if the world’s centre of gravity is shifting from West to East. This is not just an impression. It is practically an empirical fact. Although I did not see much of these countries yet, I can say after only one month in the Arab Gulf that the region is buzzing with such activities that we can hardly believe these Arabs were just forty years ago still under the British rule. 

Whenever I ask people “how was this part of the city ten years ago” for example, the answer comes almost invariable: “it did not exist,” or “there was nothing here,” or “it was desert”! This is something. Doha for instance, is literally booming with towers and new buildings everywhere. By night, when I look through the window, it is as if I were in New York City. I see people working by day, and I see them working in the evenings. The trades are always open. The population is cosmopolitan. Young people hang on together, as they do in all the cities of the West; but here, I do not see them suffering from marginalisation, unemployment, poverty, and other modern calamities.

So I found myself wondering: was not this the condition of Europe and the USA after the Second World War? Was not this the condition of the baby-boom generation? Then what happened to Europe and the USA? Are they getting older and, with the old age, slipping into a kind of apathy and indifference to their own fate? Which partially explains why their youth are prey to moroseness and lack of purpose, and why their political elite are so uneasy with the crisis and the demands of the population...

The author an expert in US-Middle East relations at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute).


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