The Middle East is faced with a significant balancing act: how to fit in with the rest of the world economically and politically while maintaining its unique traditions and culture. The region cannot isolate itself from the countries outside its borders, nor does it want to. It is part of the global community and must act accordingly.
Islamic banks—i.e., those that conform to a system of banking consistent with the principles of Islamic law—are a tradition in the Middle East. They have made a comeback in recent years to provide banking services to people living in Muslim communities. Significantly, shari'a-compliant assets reached about $400 billion throughout the world in 2009. The potential market is $4 trillion.
Leaders of the countries within the region realize it is not the Middle East against the world, or vice versa. Like their counterparts across the globe, they must grapple with cohesion versus confusion, with the former as their goal. They have been undergoing serious growing pains in the first decade of the twenty-first century as they strive to reach that goal.
There are no easy answers to resolving the Palestinian versus Israeli situation, placating the protesters in the many “hot spots” in the region, creating jobs, decreasing reliance on non–Middle East countries for technological services, or planning for a non-oil economy. But there is hope for the region based on the progress demonstrated in individual countries that are models for the entire Middle East.
Qatar is one of the bright spots in the Middle East. Its growing economy is a model for other countries in the region, and it will host the 2022 soccer World Cup, which has accelerated large-scale infrastructure projects such as a metro system and a Qatar-Bahrain causeway. The event will showcase the Middle East and what it can accomplish.
Qatar was one of the few Middle East countries to escape serious political unrest in 2011. That was due largely to its solid, expanding economy and prospects for continued growth in the future. In fact, in 2010, Qatar experienced the world's highest growth rate, ranked second only to Liechtenstein in per capita income, and has the world's lowest unemployment rate.
Oil and gas account for more than half of Qatar's GDP, 85 percent of its export revenues, and 70 percent of its government income. It has enough proved oil reserves (15 billion barrels) to last another thirty-seven years and 14 percent of the world's proved reserves of natural gas. Qatar is also attracting private and foreign investment in non-energy sectors.
The adage “Employed people are happy people” applies to Qatar. Yet, its government does not ignore the rest of the Middle East. The country supplied fighter planes to a NATO coalition that interceded in the 2011 Libyan civil war, which was not a popular tactic in some Middle East countries, such as Iran. Despite that, this emirate comprising only 850,000 people is emerging as a leader in the Middle East and a reliable partner for countries outside the region.
Technology provides hope for the future. Social networking websites such as Facebook are invaluable tools for people to spread information, contact one another about protests, and conduct debates about public policy, among other uses. (Conversely, a government can use the networks to squelch debate or disseminate public relations information—or can simply shut them down.)
The media revolution involved in the 2011 unrest may prove to be beneficial for the people of the Middle East. The expansion of digital technology and more innovative use of the media may spur citizens’ demands for democracy, and lessen governments’ willingness and actions designed to inhibit their protests.
Real-time communications will enable people in Middle East countries to become more aware of what is going on in the region, and facilitate their abilities to express their political and religious views.
An Increasing Need for Infrastructure
There are other favorable signs that the Middle East is growing in prestige and importance globally. Metropolitan areas are expanding rapidly in some countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAR. Consequently, jobs will be created as local authorities strive to upgrade the infrastructures of these communities to keep pace with the growth.
By mid-2011, Iraqis were able to buy flat-screen TVs, computers, refrigerators, stoves, and clothing from China, Turkey, Iran, and South Korea. Oil production was increasing, the dinar was stabilizing, and the economy was growing an average of 5.2 percent annually based on figures between 2007 and 2011. The central bank had foreign reserves of about $50 billion.
There are drawbacks to the burgeoning populations and demands for improved infrastructures. Currently, most Middle Eastern countries do not have the capability to upgrade the needed facilities, especially water and wastewater, roads and rails, traffic and transportation, and underground infrastructures without outside help. Domestic businesses with the technological and logistical expertise needed to cope with tasks in these areas currently do not exist in sufficient number. Experts in specialties such as planning competence, services, machines, and construction supervision still must be hired from outside the region.
Iraq presents a classic example of a country in need of infrastructure upgrades—and of opportunity. In 2003 the country had no economy to speak of, as civil war and the incursion of international military forces created chaos across the country. By 2011, foreign armies began their withdrawal and a newly formed government took control of the country, albeit tenuously.
The Iraqi government still had a lot of work to do to restore stability, but the country experienced a major step forward in economic development—and gave cause for hope to the rest of the region.
Addressing the Problems
Middle East government officials are taking steps individually and collectively to address the problems created by growing populations, including political unrest and shortages of water. They send students to excellent schools around the globe to acquire educations that can be applied back home, engage in international joint venture business projects, and hold local, regional, and international seminars to exchange knowledge.
They work together to promote projects in organizations such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an organization that includes fifty-seven countries spread over four continents. It is the world's second largest intergovernmental organization, ranked below only the United Nations. Its goal is to protect the interests of the Muslim world by promoting international peace across the globe.
In short, these Middle Eastern countries are striving to earn their places among the world's elite nations. That is their future, whether it is derived from unexpected sources or local experts rebuilding technologically advanced infrastructures.