The Gulf El Do­rado

The Pak Banker - - MARKETS/SPORTS - Ai­jaz Zaka Syed

What an event­ful year 2017 has turned out to be for the Mid­dle East! This is the year that may be known for the great Gulf di­vide, with tra­di­tional friends and al­lies of the Ara­bian Penin­sula turn­ing on each other. The GCC cri­sis couldn't have come at a more in­con­ve­nient time for the re­gion that has al­ready been bat­tling the un­set­tling ef­fects of the long slump in oil prices and the global eco­nomic slow­down. This is the year that also saw dra­matic changes in Saudi Ara­bia, the largest Arab econ­omy and the birth­place of Is­lam. The king­dom is fi­nally open­ing up and is ar­guably chang­ing for the bet­ter.

The free­dom of move­ment granted to Saudi women, in­clud­ing the his­toric de­ci­sion of al­low­ing them to drive, un­der the new Saudi lead­er­ship is only a small and but sig­nif­i­cant part of this change. It goes with­out say­ing that it is an in­cred­i­bly pos­i­tive and heart­en­ing de­vel­op­ment. Some cyn­ics have sug­gested that the Saudi re­forms are driven by eco­nom­ics, rather than by a gen­uine de­sire for change. What­ever the mo­tives, the change in this an­cient land has long been due and should be wel­comed.

I have al­ways be­lieved and ar­gued that given its size, strate­gic im­por­tance and in­flu­ence in the Arab and Is­lamic world, a pos­i­tive change in Saudi Ara­bia would have a last­ing im­pact on the en­tire Mid­dle East and the Mus­lim world.

Be­sides, given the pace of change that the rest of the world has been wit­ness­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing in the past few years, no coun­try can af­ford to re­main an is­land or in­dif­fer­ent to the de­mands of progress. Al­though oil prices have sub­stan­tially im­proved this year, the good old days of pre-em­i­nence of Gulf oil when the Arabs could largely de­ter­mine the price of their much prized prod­uct may never come back.

The un­ex­pected en­try of US shale pro­duc­ers of­fer­ing their oil dirt-cheap has added a whole new di­men­sion and is keep­ing the prices down. Be­sides, given the role fos­sil fu­els have ap­par­ently played in global warm­ing, there is a race to come up with al­ter­na­tive, health­ier modes of trans­porta­tion such as elec­tric au­to­mo­biles. It is es­ti­mated that in the next 30 years, elec­tric ve­hi­cles may be­come af­ford­able and eas­ily avail­able for ev­ery­one.

There­fore, the re­gion can no longer re­main de­pen­dent on this liq­uid gold as its chief source of in­come. It des­per­ately needs to find new, al­ter­na­tive and more sus­tain­able sources of rev­enue. Al­ready, the ef­fects of low oil prices have been most dis­as­trous for many in the re­gion, es­pe­cially for the large ex­pa­tri­ate work force that has played a crit­i­cal role in its de­vel­op­ment and growth for the past four decades and more.

These days you hear of friends, rel­a­tives and ac­quain­tances los­ing jobs al­most on a daily ba­sis. As more and more busi­nesses be­come a vic­tim of the slow­down, jobs are fast dis­ap­pear­ing. The few that re­main are be­ing taken up by lo­cals as gov­ern­ments step up ef­forts to em­ploy more and more na­tion­als.

The sit­u­a­tion back home in the coun­tries of their birth is not very re­as­sur­ing ei­ther. Be­sides, hav­ing spent much of their time abroad - for many, it is a life­time - in the com­fort and rel­a­tive safety of the Gulf, it is not easy find­ing their feet and start­ing afresh. Many end up spend­ing all their in­come on keep­ing up ap­pear­ances of a dig­ni­fied life abroad and save noth­ing for a rainy day, as it were.

The Gulf wealth made a huge and vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence to In­dia, Pak­istan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philip­pines, not to men­tion poorer Arab coun­tries like Egypt, Su­dan and Ye­men. In re­gions like Ker­ala and Hy­der­abad in In­dia, it has lifted mil­lions out of poverty. Un­for­tu­nately, just as many Gulf States have failed to ex­tract last­ing ben­e­fits from long years of oil wealth, many in cities like Hy­der­abad, home to thou­sands of Gulf re­turnees, have not made use of this pros­per­ity to build strong in­sti­tu­tions for the com­mu­nity.

Many peo­ple squan­der much of their wealth, earned in the Gulf with sweat and blood, in ab­surdly os­ten­ta­tious wed­dings and bizarre ban­quets. As a re­sult, when they even­tu­ally go home or are sent home, they of­ten go home empty handed, rue­ing missed op­por­tu­ni­ties and squan­dered re­sources. The same fate is star­ing many Gulf coun­tries in the face, which have been rather laid­back in the face of change all these years.

Those who are not will­ing to change or aren't pre­pared for the fu­ture are sim­ply cast aside. There is no dearth of such ex­am­ples in the re­gion or the wider world. As Sheikh Mo­hammed him­self has said on more than one oc­ca­sion, ad­vis­ing the Arabs that change is the only al­ter­na­tive for the re­gion: "If we do not change, we will be changed."

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