Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Elephant that Is Not in the Room, but Should Be!


Where Are All the Entrepreneurs?

Very few entrepreneurs in the Arab World seem to be seriously interested in reform. Indeed, they can be heard every now and then in countries such as Syria, Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere, criticizing cumbersome government procedures, import/export regulations and the endemically corrupt bureaucracies, and calling for effective reforms of the country’s financial institutions. But that has been the extant of their “activism” so far. Politically speaking they continue to be missing in action, although they could probably generate more popular sympathy and endorsement, despite their known part in ongoing corruption schemes, than any of the existing opposition groups. Or, by joining or allying with some of the existing opposition groups they can probably bestow upon them a greater sense of legitimacy and credibility.

For people are not that really stupid, and they do realize at a certain level that their consumerist desires and expectations represent, in one form or another, an actual endorsement of not purely capitalist ideals, than at least certain mercantilist ones.

Now the entrepreneur class, or to be more specific, the businesses community, is not in any way, shape or form some homogenous groups of individuals. In addition to their religious, ethnic and provincial diversity, they are also divided by, if not ideology per se, than at least, conception of the role in society and their relationship to it.

The traditional aristocratic families, aka the Bazaaris as they are called in Iran, are quite different from the surviving feudal overlords in certain parts of the region, and both are quite different from the Nouveau Riche, that fractious group of individual shady entrepreneurs who emerged under existing regimes and who owe much of their wealth to the shady deals and scheme made possible by the corruption and corruptibility of these regimes.

The Nouveau Riche might seem like opportunist bastards at first, but some of them have been around for a while now, let’s not forget that some of the regimes go back a few decades, that is, enough time to allow some of the Nouveau Riche to make the crossover into Old Money, at least from the point of view of the increasingly young population. Some might have, in fact, managed to establish family ties with some of the old aristocratic families out there, benefiting from certain rough times that many of these families have gone through during the heydays of the 60s, 70s and in some cases even the 80s and 90s.

Some Nouveau Riche elements, however, might have grown less opportunistic and as such more willing to be critical of some of the policies of existing regimes. But so far, and even for them, the politics is still out of the question.

For representatives of Old Money, on the other hand, early involvement in politics have arguably backfired on them, at least in their own minds, and was simply too costly. But this is a rather dubious take on things. The reason for the failure of Old Money’s dabbling in politics is related to their insistence on the pursuing their own narrow interests firsts and at the expense of everything else. They did not show any real commitment to improving the living conditions in the countryside, in poorer communities, or any kind of serious developmental activities. Their narrow mindedness, lack of vision and petty squabbles spelled their doom, and that of their respective countries to some extant. It is their failure that facilitated the rise of the Baath in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Algeria, and brought about the Nasserist experiment in Egypt, with its influence elsewhere in the region.

The fact that this same mentality continues to plague the minds of the old entrepreneurial class, who now prefer to play it safe, and prefer to take part in the various corruption schemes in order to maintain their quiet, luxurious yet quite marginal subsistence in their countries and societies, will continue to have a very debilitating effect on their societies.

Why is the role of entrepreneurs so important? Because, in the absence of serious intellectual leaders and political leaders from the scene, the added absence of entrepreneurial leaders might just doom the region to a long period of atavistic mayhem.

Ours, the proliferation of pretenders notwithstanding, are in fact leaderless societies, which is just another aspect of our continuing plight.