Published on Arab Voices

Avoiding group think on Arab world

Mehrunisa Qayyum is the Founder of PITAPOLICY Consulting, and runs PITAPOLICY: a political economy blog on the MENA region.  She worked at the United States Government Accountability Office for four years.  Prior to that, she earned her MPP & Certificate in Contemporary Arab Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in both Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and Public Policy from the University of Chicago. Her recent writing experiences include analytical pieces on civil society, transparency & governance, human rights, political economy of Syria, and  social media forums' impact. She welcomes Twitter discussion:@PITAPOLICY

World Bank | 2012“I was hoping to hear about Arab countries...why are we hearing a case study of Pakistan?” exclaimed an attendee of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Chief Economist’s Forum at the World Bank.  Although the purpose was to draw upon lessons learned from a variety of countries, I still felt that the attendee’s criticism hinted at an exclusionary paradigm - even if the object of the criticism was from an Economics Nobel Laureate, Roger Myerson.

True: over 20 Arab countries make up the MENA region.  Yet the topics and recent remarks at the Wharton Business School’s MENA conference challenge the exclusionary paradigm that fuels such criticism.  Three examples reveal how the MENA construct must still consider the broader region - with respect to the socio-economic and political nature of the Arab Awakening. 

First, the Wharton’s “Women in Business” panel invited Nadereh Chamlou, World Bank’s Senior Advisor to MENA, to highlight the range of women’s entrepreneurial standing, which drew positive female employment trends from Iran.  In a similar vein, the first female Nobel Prize winner in the MENA region hails from Iran: Shirin Ebadi.  Overall, women entrepreneurs in MENA tend to have larger firms (250 people, or more) compared to other regions.   Chamlou illustrated a few positive trends stemming from Iran’s female employment trends: 1) Female entrepreneurs have entered the newer sectors, like petro-chemicals and information technology; 2) Some of the biggest publishing houses in Iran are operated by women, and 3) There is less of a social stigma for Iranian women to enter the workforce. Given these trends, it was no surprise that Chamlou’s fellow panelists noted that other MENA women could draw upon Iran’s examples. 

Second, the MENA conference featured Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., Namik Tan.  Whether the topic of finance, contracting, or infrastructure emerged in panel discussions, each referenced Turkey.  Consistently, Arab and non-Arab panelists remarked on some aspect of Turkey’s dynamic private sector and emerging market such as its e-commerce – not surprising then that Turkey represents the third largest Facebook market.       

In contrast to the World Bank’s MENA Forum, Namik Tan described the success of the Turkish model, which slightly differed from Vali Nasr’s point about adopting the Turkish model of the eighties.  Shortly thereafter, a separate panel focused exclusively on the growth of Turkey’s geo-political and economic ties in spite of the financial crisis challenging its European neighbors.  In particular, panelists noted how Turkey began investing in other MENA countries prior to the Arab Awakening. 

Former Member of Parliament, Erol Cebeci, emphasized how countries such as Tunisia and Egypt were looking towards Turkey for increased trade.  The panelists delved into a discussion on intra-regional trade by larger economies in the MENA region.  Coincidently, a key panelist on the private equity panel came from Pakistan, raising the third point: Zulfiqar Ali of Abraaj Capital, represents a group of investors focused on financial markets in the Gulf. According to Khaleej Times, the trade volume between Pakistan and the GCC could grow from $59 billion to $350 billion by 2012.

Dr. Myerson states that political economy challenges in Pakistan may help inform the current focus on Egypt’s developments.  Similar to discussions on Iran and Turkey, different phases of socio-economic trends tend to re-emerge in other countries-neighboring or not.  For example, Myerson described how 1980s Pakistan flirted with decentralized local electoral politics.  In hindsight, he concluded that Egypt’s next wave of local elections might increase local access to decision-making powers if Egypt takes note of Pakistan’s missteps in reversing the process of devolving political power to locally elected councils. 

In a nutshell: rather than focusing solely on Arab experiences and contexts, lessons learned from other examples can serve as a valuable lesson.  Otherwise, forums and discussions risk facilitating ‘group-think,’ and defeats the whole purpose of convening.

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