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Libyan Writer Ghoma
الكاتب الليبي غـومة

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Friday, 23 February, 2007

LIBYA AND ARABSTANS: From Raw Materials to Theme Parks?

By: Ghoma

If You Don't Know Where You're Going, All the Roads Are the Same!

        Development means different things to different people. It's a willful decision, never a random happenstance. In its essence a process of change to the better. Growth is its goal. Some say it's syncretic, others it's synergetic. No matter which one way a country chooses, depending on its specific circumstances, an initial major re-orientation of society's main stays, such as, its outlook, goals, and ways of doing things, is sine non quo. A process way downstream, before any serious attempts to development can be started. Letting technocrats and so-called experts lead the way is merely winging it as it goes through a patching actions here and a repair there but never a complete overhaul of the modus operandi responsible for the decay. A way which can be described as letting fate to decide destiny according to the laws of chance.

        From the 17th century on, until recently, the nations that took the road to development by industrialization and all what it entailed had done so following more or less the same path. Building humans' and infrastructures' capabilities to undertake the realization of an industrial base capable not only of meeting the local demands but also increasing its output to provide other markets by creating further demands to its products. That's how England, France, then North America, Germany and Japan, and much later the rest of Eastern Europe and now China have been doing all this time. First the mass transformation of peasants into urban proletarians, a process which was effected sometimes slowly, sometimes tumultuously to constitute one of the biggest revolution that ever has been undertaken in human history; and second from proletriats to middle class ranks. These mutations, of course, didn't take place without, snags, much tormoils, and horrid human sufferings. Just read Charles Dickens or F. Engels on the conditions of the industrial proletariat and their living conditions in cities like Manchester, Birmingham and other centers of industry in the old continent, or the sweat shops and tenement overcrowding in New York City of the 19th century and perhaps 20th century too.

        There's ample grounds to contend that every country had taken its path and time, in accordance with its social conditions and the period in which it was effecting the take-off. While it's true also that every period, every epoch had offered opportunities to exploit and had also imposed restrictions to overcome. However, the search for raw materials, markets, etc. put already industrialized countries and newly emerging ones at loggerheads, and into each others throats. Thus all those wars on colonies, slaves, and markets. Those wars were mainly on raw materials, markets, etc.; the various squabbles were on monopolies, economic policies, etc.; and , the impositions of tariffs and restrictions between and among various countries were to slow down imports and exports. The so-called WWI and WWII [best be seen as Europe's civil wars] were the latest among the many hot and cold wars. One thing though came out of all these jokeyings and jostlings: the latest nations to industrialize had learned from their predecessors, particularly England and France, one or two things to guide their paths: a- not to stick to certain sectors and industries too long -just because once made sense and the country had an advantage- when other country(ies) get into those particular areas; and, b- keep ahead of the pack by investing in R&D and encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship. This is done with the proviso to avoid what has been called the British disease, a form of stagnation which took place when England stuck to what she was good at in the 19th century, that's, textiles, steel, automobile, etc., even after the Americans had gotten into these areas, and later the Germans and the Japanese.

        The logic behind this is, because the newly industrializing country has always the advantages of a relatively cheaper labor force and newer machinery and techniques of management, thus less overhead costs, which gave them cheaper and better quality products than the older industrialized countries. Hence, some of the industrialized countries had started to adopt policies that would keep them always vigilant and alert; and put them on the move vis-a-vis those new countries coming into markets with old or new products. These countries slowly but consistently started abandoning those industries which the newer countries have shown an ability to excel in; and dedicated their efforts on what were called high added value industries, such as aeronautics and airspace, weapons, pharmaceuticals, IT, scientific research, culture and entertainment, etc. That's how USA, in mid-20th century, had abandoned electronics to the Japanese, then later on conceded also, steel, and is now in the process of giving up on the automobile industry, etc. to them too.

        By late 20th century, coinciding with the advent of the communication revolution and the structural changes industrialized economies were going through: knowledge and IT dependent, finance management, and service oriented economies. At this time too, China has reared its head out of its self-imposed isolation and signaled its desire and willingness to be considered a player on the world stadium and a formidable competitor for its resources and markets. China not only had showed that it's waking up but also that it's in dire need to feed and clothe its swarming masses. Keep in mind that China over the preceding half-century had done what its takes to get here, that's the needed preparatory work. For over the second half of the 20th China had effectuated one of the most daring revolutions in human history. It made the necessary changes in the mental set-up of its population, as well as had built skills, infrastructures and the ability to enter the world market, and finally has signaled its readiness to roll. Today China's these advantages: An abundant and cheaper skilled labor force with an attractive and huge and hungry consumer market. A temptation, no country, from the industrialized world, would let pass without jumping head-on to stake its share in the new open bonanza. Thus the outsourcing business started. As labor, benefits, and overhead costs, in the old industrialized economies, grew disproportionately sharper to productivity increases; capital started looking for outlays beyond the traditional bounds. All those industries and sectors that needed intensive labor inputs and relatively lower skill levels, as well as all those sectors of services that can be performed cheaper by others must follow the trend and locate off-shore wherever these advantages were found. Most of the industry moved to the Asian Pacific Rim countries, particularly China. While relatively higher skill-dependent services went to India.

        While China, so far, has been following the classical model, India, on the other hand, took exception. India with its relatively large numbers of well trained, English-speaking labor force, engineers, scientists, doctors, etc. is opting for a different model and taking a less traveled road to development. Call it development sans the traditional proletariat, a petit bourgeois, middle class type of change. A new model, never tried before. Perhaps different times and different circumstances demand different approaches too! It's still to be seen whether the middle class is capable of effecting such a radical transformation in society. How to deal with the complexity of Indian cultural and social make-ups and what to do with the vast store of peasants to make out of them industrial workers, are questions still to be grappled with? How to effect the jump from peasant to professionalized society without going through the intermediate stages of skills? Will India succeed? The bets are still open! No one can predict how India can or will face the tremendous social, cultural, and economic challenges in front of her, given the path is taking. Only the future will tell.

        Not all countries that had embarked on the road to development and industrialization had gotten there. Some of them got off the track by more or less wide margins depending on their starting points. Countries, like the former Soviet Union, present Russia, and other Eastern European states had partially failed to reach the integrated, mature, and sophisticated levels that would have brought economic prosperity and social welfare. Their developments had been hampered by many factors, the most apparent, in addition to command economies, were ideological rigidities, arms race, hot or cold wars, and political stagnations. The contradictions these societies had fallen into and never been able to solve were the inflexibility of the political system vis-a-vis the demanded flexibility and creativity of an industrial economy. Moreover the divergences in these countries between their social and cultural spheres and their economic and political realities didn't help either. Gaps, for instance, which accorded few inhibitions in the social and cultural arenas while controlled rigidly, from the top down, the economy and politics. Thus heavy industry and basic research were beyond and far ahead than what the economy could have afforded had the rest of society been involved. The result, a distorted industrial process with captive markets and no consumer products.

        The industrialized world, except China and perhaps former socialist block countries, are now in what's termed as post-industrial stage. Post-industrial economy, structurally, is a soft kind economy, it consists of finance management. It stands on two legs; Money circulation and consumer manipulation. Service economies tend to be run on and dominated by soft-edged outlets particularly money management, entertainment, culture, and tourism. Thus, some of the old factory warehouses have been converted into whathaveyou, restaurants, factory outlets and retail shops, condominiums, etc. With research centers, museums, libraries, performing halls, stadia, arenas, etc. sprouting like mushrooms, everyday of the week, to dominate the urban economy and landscape. Urban economy needs its tax base and consumer spending to keep the already built services and amenities running.

        Historically, the area of the Arabstans, was relegated, by the global market, to the production of raw materials, particularly energy, in exchange for the manufactured goods and services the buyers of energy produce. All efforts were made to keep such an arrangement in place. Subtle at times and not so subtle at others of political pressures and manipulations, meddling by brute force when all other methods failed. Thus the purposely created continuous turmoil in the area, for the last century or so, with no end in view as long as the area is the main locus for the production of the main fuel that fires the economic engines of the rest of the world.

        Arabs, the petro-Arabs -who're behaving no differently than the lottery winners- not having earned the money in the 'old-fashioned-way,' don't know what to do with the windfall wealth. Asking for advice from the same people whose main concerns were to circulate back the petro-dollars to their original markets. In the best, these experts would suggest what's taking place in their own yards: In parallel to what's going on in the Western economies, commodification of history, culture, etc. add to them in the case of the Arabs, regional identity. The magic elixir seems to have been found in some sort of sanitized theme parks! Uncoordinated actions preceded by no worthy thoughts. Thus invented tourism Meccas were the way to go for lazy bones who don't want to go through the maelstrom of what it takes to climb from the bottom up. Some of these Arabstans, as the Gulf states, their approach to development is no different than a wealthy person renting or buying a helicopter to land on the top of the desired mountain, just for the heck of it, and to say I've been there; without going through the toil and agony of learning how to climb step-by-step until reaching the top, not to say skipping the exhilarating experience such a process entails. These folks, the wrapped- and capped-heads, are in the process of doing something without either physically sweating of or mentally agonizing about! What? 'Development' by proxy! Hiring others to tell them what to do, to dream for them! Of course, these others will give them what they know best, some of what they've been doing in their own countries, that's, sell culture and fantasized ecstasies to tourists, said the experts to their naive and gullible patrons, the easy-money owners with no brains to match, are the way to development, to the post oil-economy.

        Abu Dhabi has embarked on a huge $27 billion project in the Saadiyat Island (happiness island). This next Xanadu was supposed to be full of branch names like, Guggenheim (by Frank Gehry), the Louvre (by Jean Nouvel), a Yale University branch of an arts school, a maritime museum (by Tadao Ando), a performing arts center (by Zaha Hadid), complete with a Biennales for arts and architecture, et cetera. With the needed hotels, marinas, gulf courses, etc. Dubai, Doha, and who knows, maybe the rest of the former tent incapments as well have already in planning similar if not more exotic fantasies to attract the happy multitudes, who, according to the wishful scenarios, will descend on the Gulf coast and every other sand dune in swarms, full of money and hungry for culture with the required appreciation of all the services and amenities these places have to offer: from the fine arts, theatrical and musical performances to the tasting and savoring of the rich cuisines to complete the experience of enjoying an exceptional romantic get-away! Hey, move aside oh! You le cote azure, Spain, Italy, Greece, Hawaii, and Rio; here comes the ultra-modern, ultra-expensive, uber-sophisticated retreats in the desert!

        Are the other Arabstans doing better or differently? Not that much! Those who don't because they lacked the cash. Libya, for instance, with its indecisive, wish-washy yet snail-pace attempts to diversify its economy and to find a post-oil way to survive, has been planning some fantasies of its own! The Ironic, and what's not yet clear how a post-oil economy is going to be achieved through an accelerated and intensive oil exploration and extraction stage of the only wealth the country has! that's, to sell as much as possible, in the short-run, before its demand on the world market dwindles! Apart from this, the buzz word here, too, is: Tourism and tourists everywhere in a land which cannot even quash the thirst of its own citizens. What appears to be straight-forward and uncomplicated industry, as tourism, is not necessarily so on a more careful look. Especially, in a country as Libya, where nothing really worth seeing is there to begin with, everything has to be imported, everything has to be planned and invented ex novo. Not having a skilled and a relatively cheap labor force will make any effort in this area much tougher to bear fruit.

        A series of questions have to be answered before any effort be wasted: What will attract tourists to Libya? What's there to see? It's one thing to dream big, is another to leap with blind faith in the void. For there's a good contention to grapple with, that's, does an educated beduin translate into a sophisticated host? Why would tourists come to Libya? Only if the old cliche still holds, which says: if you build it they'll come. Well, if it doesn't, then what? Besides tourism needs a strong identity, culture, and mucho treasure trove of artifacts, not to forget a tolerant populace that would allow, or just close an eye, on the behaviors and excesses some tourists would likely exhibit -that's what they're there for, after all!

        But the main question, which so far has resisted a good answer, remains, why among all the groups that have or claimed to have been once civilized, the Arabs are the only group who couldn't bring themselves to modernity and modern conditions? Why this group in particular lagged behind , missed many opportunities to rise to the occasion and is still wallowing in its own vomits? Is it because of social atrophy, cultural stagnation, religious orthodoxy, political backwardness, or all combined? Most probably the answer comes close to the popular notion which is used as a puny excuse and says Arabs being a religious folks, have their eyes focused on the other worldly life rather than this one! No group of states, 22 and counting, have lacked the will or the stamina to rebel against their own miserable conditions and humiliating history than Arab states. A paucity of cultural or political leaders has been the salient characteristics of the area in the last perhaps one thousand years. It's amazing how long the slumber can last! Are the attempts going on these days part of the problem or part of the solution? Can what seem to be mere tipsy-turvy, hodge-podge gropings in the darkness lead -just by the laws of accretion- to any plausible outcome? The answer, no serious and meaningful political, social, and economic changes have happened by chance so far. All societies and countries have willed their changes and have done what was required, even at the expense sometimes of disowning their own past and sloughing their identities. If Arabs, in toto, or any subgroup want to change, they've to be ready and willing to pay any price, to overcome any obstacle, to do whatever it takes to get out of their self-imposed darkness and to come out into the light of individual freedoms and collective obligations.

        As for Libya, with its empty history matched only by its tragic present circumstances, no real and serious development can be started without first making some difficult yet basic and necssary decisions: stabilizing population growth, curbing consumption, investing in a true world class education system, and building infrastructures . Of the main two sides, the regime and its opponents, none of them seems to have given much thought to these kind of issues or to the shape of the future in general. The regime with its historical flip-floppings is bent on more of the same. While the main groups of opposition, the Islamists and independents, are caught in the entanglements of their own seductive yet vague slogans. The one through the slogan "Islam is the solution," the other through mottoes aimed at convincing the regime to re-form itself! Islam, like any religion, based on absolutisms and rooted in metaphysical speculations, is a source for ethics and moral law, but is no ready made template to solve contemporary living problems. As to the regime's hoped for self-adjustments, in the best scenario, will be mere band aides to hide long festering wounds. So, is Libya caught between the proverbial Sulla and Crassus -between a rock and hard surface- that's, between the regime's intellectual poverty, incompetence, and lack of accountability and the Islamists' and others' flights of fancy either to reconstitute 'the virtuous republic' -the kingdom of heaven on earth!- or to persuade power to clip its own wings? For, if the regime's sterility has perpetuated the stagnation, the alternative(s) is no spring rain either. Sermons, as their counterparts empty rhetorical speeches, may do some good , a la pop-psychology sessions, but are no cure to structural problems such as Libya and others suffer from. It's a tall order to contend that piety and virtuous conduct alone would be sufficient to motivate the devout -or the smoke screens to persuade the secular- to hard work and creative thinking - the inherent submissiveness of the ones, and the mistrust and deceptiveness of the others are real barrier to overcome.

        Only party politics is built on negatives. The regime's denouncing its oppositions and these latter denouncing the existing conditions. The one through monopolizing of patriotism and the others through offerings of moral recipes as a substitutes. But everyone knows negative + negative, outside of physical sciences, don't result in positives! How to change a tyrannical politics, a rentier economy, a religious culture, and tribal beduin social orders into a viable modern systems and organizations capable to cope with, if not prosper, in contemporary world conditions? These are the issues that any oppositions worth their shoes, in all their colors and hues, must contend with and find answers to before hitting the stumps and filling the airwaves with shrills and screams that add to the confusion of an already deafened audience.


More Articles Written By Ghoma

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