Obama's Subtle Message: Why Can't the Arabs Be More Like Asia?

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Analyses of President Barack Obama's Cairo speech have focused on his moving recognition of Islam's contributions to global civilization and his comments on the most contentious issues, from terrorism to the Israel-Palestine conflict, from Afghanistan to the case for democracy in the Muslim world. But for me, the single most significant and important two sentences in the speech were tucked away towards the end. "There need not be contradiction between development and tradition," Obama said. "Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies while maintaining distinct cultures."

For the Arab world, this is — or rather should be — a profoundly important point. Not a single Arab state has been able to build a sustained economic success in the aftermath of colonialism. (And I include in this indictment mini-states such as Dubai, impressive though they may be, whose recent prosperity seems much too much dependent on a real estate bubble.) In two generations, by contrast, Japan and South Korea, developed two of the world's most vibrant, innovative economies out of the ashes of truly devastating wars. On the foundation of successful economies, both built a superstructure of robust democratic societies — in the case of South Korea, one almost thinks, at times, too robust. And yet, as Obama pointed out, they have been able to maintain their cultural heritage; more than that, as anyone who buys Japanese designer goods or watches South Korean TV soap operas knows, they have been able to export their cultures around the world. (See pictures of Obama in Egypt.)

The Asian miracle, of course, is not just limited to the two north-east Asian giants. It extends to Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, all of whom have been able to give their people high levels of prosperity, health care, and education. None of those societies had easy births. In the 1950s, Singapore was a backwater of the British Empire. Taiwan was deeply divided, in the years after the Communist party took control on the Chinese mainland, between exiles and locals. The spectacular growth of Hong Kong between 1950 and 1980 (Arab states would do well to remember) was fueled by the dynamism and determination of poor refugees from communism looking to build a better future for their children. Indeed, the predominantly Asian Muslim states of Indonesia and Malaysia, even though both have sometimes flattered to deceive, have been far more successful in developing diverse, modern economies, than the Arab Muslim states.

There are many speculations on why the Arab Muslim world has been such an economic failure. There is the legacy of empire (but that affected half the world); an anti-industrial culture (an explanation rather than an excuse); the resources curse (though nations from Australia and Norway have built successful economies on the back of a natural endowment); or continual instability fostered by the failure to settle the Israel-Palestine dispute (though why Israel — a tiny nation on a sliver of land — should be thought to be responsible for Arab economic failure beats me.) There are doubtless others. But the message from Asia, as Obama pointed out, is that such a doleful result is not preordained. A central lesson of the last 60 years is that in the field of economics and life-chances more generally, Arab states have failed their own people, and they did not need to. It was great that Obama implied that hard truth; it would have been wonderful if he had spelt it out even more clearly.