At Large

Wealth Is Found

A South Asian perspective on Gulf State Arab culture.

By 12.8.05

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When we North Americans think of the differences between the fabulously wealthy Arab sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf and ourselves, we think mostly in political terms. We think of their attitude towards women and how it compares to prevailing views here after four decades of female liberation. We compare their strict religiosity to our secularism. Or we may think about our support for Israel vs. their reluctance to even acknowledge that country's existence.

Working in the Gulf region gives you a wider perspective on these differences. (I worked in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from late 2004 to June 2005.) You get to swap notes with people from all over South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), for one thing. They make up the bulk of the expatriate workforce in the Gulf and have their own view of the Gulf Arabs, which is distinct from ours and in some ways much more sophisticated.

After several conversations with South Asian friends, I found that the differences noted by the South Asians between themselves and the Gulf Arabs were much more interesting than the differences I saw between Gulf Arabs and Westerners. (I do not necessarily endorse these views, but I want to share them because I think they will be of interest to a larger audience.)

I had one South Asian friend who made the following observation, late one night after a rambling conversation about the Gulf Arab states: "Can you name a single Gulf Arab who has left this region and become a well-known, well-regarded physician in another part of the world? Are there any Gulf Arab novelists, poets or artists who are known to overseas audiences? What about scientists -- can you name any famous Kuwaiti or Saudi researchers, for example?" He had lived and worked in the Gulf for years and was convinced the answer to each question is "no."

I remember another South Asian friend who used to shake his head at the vagaries of Gulf Arab-style corporate management. Whenever he heard about some bizarre request or directive from a Gulf Arab higher-up, he would laugh and then start scratching his left ear by putting his right hand behind his head. (Try it -- you have to twist your arm to do this).

This was an inside joke among the employees of the place where my friend worked. His silent message: "These guys make everything more difficult than it has to be." They can even make the act of scratching one's ear more complicated than necessary. (I understand Gulf Arabs tell the same joke about South Asians.)

WHERE NORTH AMERICANS MIGHT think mainly of the political differences between us and the Gulf Arabs, the South Asians I met, as you can tell, were much more keen to point out the Gulf Arab region's lack (in their eyes) of any significant scientific, cultural or artistic achievements -- and contrast this failure with the energetic South Asian diaspora and its many accomplishments across so many fields.

One popular South Asian view of the Gulf Arabs, as I came to understand it, is that the latter have come to think that wealth is "found," rather than created. That is, they think wealth is what you get when you sell oil and natural gas. This is the only form of wealth creation they understand or are interested in. Alternative forms of wealth creation, such as making cars or patenting new products, leave them cold.

The oil bonanza buried under their feet has corrupted the Gulf Arabs and ruined their capacity for hard work, from this point of view. This collapsed work ethic has created many wonderful work opportunities for enterprising Indians, Pakistanis and others, however, since Gulf Arab employers must import thousands of foreign workers to staff their organizations

One sign of the corruption of Gulf Arab culture, from this South Asian point of view, can be found in its failure to stress the need to study hard and master topics such as the natural sciences, medicine, computer programming or engineering. Gulf Arabs thus do not see the point of applying this knowledge to the work of building, researching or creating new things. Better to try to get a job within the state-owned oil monopolies, or sell imported luxury goods to those people who hold such jobs.

This "wealth-is-found" view has other consequences for the Gulf Arabs, my South Asian friends pointed out. When you believe wealth comes only from the sale of oil, this also precludes you from putting in the effort to build up any major manufacturing capabilities.

Thanks to oil, the Gulf Arabs have loads of investment capital. Motivated, skilled labor cannot be pumped out of the ground, however. So while the Saudis, Kuwaitis et al. could easily build first-class, high-tech plants, for example, it would be much harder for them to find Gulf Arabs in any significant numbers willing to work factory shifts and cut, stamp, press, cast, shape, weld, mould or even assemble products for export.

Again, the "wealth is found" mentality represents a big roadblock. After all, why even think of working in a factory, when the real money is found through sinecures within the oil ministry?

I DON'T WANT TO MAKE IT SOUND as if a dedication to manufacturing goods for exports would end the Gulf region's instability, but it couldn't hurt. A Saudi Arabia that aimed to export children's toys or power tools instead of Wahhabi fanatics would be a good step forward. (I should point out that the Saudis are experimenting with industrialization on a big scale in the cities of Jubail and Yanbu, so there's room for hope.)

Squeezed by this shortage of skilled, enthusiastic labor, ambitious capital-rich Gulf Arab investors instead have to find profitable opportunities outside their region, in sectors such as ports, real estate and hotels. The billions of dollars, yen and euros earned by the Gulf Arabs thus end up leaving the region and creating jobs for other people -- an ironic consequence of the skills shortage caused, in part, by the "wealth is found" mindset.

The ruling families of the Gulf Arab states have proven remarkably resistant to political or economic reforms of any kind. Perhaps it is only when their energy reserves are running dry that they will start to consider looking at how their countries could create wealth through manufacturing or some other non-energy-related export. Or perhaps the rise of India and China (through industrialization and mass education) might impress them enough to consider a shift in mindset away from merely extracting wealth out of the ground to actively working to create it. But the longer they put off this issue, the harder it will be to change.

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About the Author

Neil Hrab is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in Washington, D.C.