Arab spring does not yet deliver jobs
Arab companies are globally uncompetitive. The Middle East accounts for less than 1% of world non-fuel exports, compared with 4% from Latin America (a region with a comparable population). Turkey exports five times as much as Egypt, which has a population of similar size. Despite its favourable geographical location the Middle East is rarely part of global supply chains. And of its modest global exports, inter-Arab trade accounts for less than a tenth, barely more than in 1960.
The usual explanation for the failure to trade is the region’s resource curse. Because it is so easy to export crude oil, Arab countries have failed to develop significant merchandise exports. And because so many export the same thing—oil—they naturally do not trade with each other. Even if that were the whole story, the region would still need to develop competitive manufacturing or services to cope with demographic change. Oil cannot generate the tens of millions of new jobs that predominantly young Arab countries will need. But it is not the whole story. Arab countries could trade with each other more than they do, and part of the reason that they do not is self-inflicted.
Obstacles to regional trade are legion. Costly “trade logistics”—non-tariff barriers, red tape and poor infrastructure—add 15% to the value of Egyptian clothes and 10% to the total value of all goods shipped in the region. It costs companies an average of 95 man-days a year just to deal with trade bureaucracies. It takes longer and is more expensive to ship goods between two Middle Eastern ports than to send them from the Middle East to America. Such market fragmentation, the authors argue, is the consequence of the region’s centralised, state-led economic policies.
Just start somewhere
More trade would have familiar benefits: larger markets should enable firms to reap greater economies of scale, increase returns to investment and adopt more new technology. Just as important in the Middle Eastern context, more open trade would begin the process of dismantling over-centralised states and create a constituency for further economic change.
Of course, trade liberalisation is no substitute for privatisation, financial reform and other domestic measures. But it has a political advantage over those reforms. Because the steps required are relatively small ones (reductions in red tape, for instance) they should provoke less resistance from insiders; and because regional trade can be presented as a pan-Arab goal, it does not have the same taint of “Westernisation” that discredited earlier reform efforts. Regional trade would be only a start. But the main thing is to start somewhere.