Economic Conditions: Affluence and Poverty in the Middle East

By Henry, Clement M. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Economic Conditions: Affluence and Poverty in the Middle East


Henry, Clement M., The Middle East Journal


Affluence and Poverty in the Middle East, by M. Riad El-Ghonemy. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. xxii + 230 pages. Notes to p. 260. Bibl. to p. 282. Index to p. 298. $85 cloth; $25.99 paper.

Reviewed by Clement M. Henry

Affluence and Poverty was in gestation for a half century. As a schoolboy, M. Riad El-Ghonemy was struck during his summer holidays by the appalling poverty of the tenant farmers living in his native village in the Nile delta. Their poverty contrasted with the affluence of the farm areas' absentee landowner, former King Faruk's cousin, who lived luxuriously in Switzerland. The writer's memory is a metaphor for over 100 million inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), out of nearly 400 million, who live today in "absolute poverty" under corrupt, spendthrift, and, in a sense, absentee governments. In the past 50 years, the gap has widened between the rich and the poor in most of MENA, and this book offers "a broad diagnosis of poverty as a structural phenomenon" (p. 7).

While the writer is an economist, his concern for the "staggering" degree of deprivation leads him beyond the standard analyses and policy prescriptions of his profession. In addition to presenting the relevant economic data, he grounds the origins of poverty in the region's colonial experiences and devotes full chapters to religious values and to corruption and the embezzlement of public funds, as illustrated in rich Saudi Arabia and in poor Egypt. Although hardly an "Islamist" militant, El-Ghonemy explains the cultural as well as material reasons for the rise of Islamist oppositions in much of the region. His major conclusions are that the adjustment policies pushed by international financial institutions have worked primarily at the expense of the poor and that the region's excessive military expenditures must be reduced drastically and the resulting savings allocated to health, education, and major efforts to reduce unemployment. While not categorically opposed to structural adjustment and transitions to market economies, he emphasizes the need for adequate safety nets. He documents the discouraging finding that the various adjustment programs in the region have failed so far, except in Tunisia, to improve the lot of the very poor.

El-Ghonemy displays some familiarity with every political economy in the MENA, defined as including Iran, Israel, and Turkey as well as the Arab states. Dry economics are interspersed with wit: affluence in the western region of Saudi Arabia is correlated with obesity and diabetes (pp. 143-45). The average annual income of peasants in pre-revolutionary Iran was "one-tenth of the price of a kilogram of Iran's caviar, consumed by the rich in less than an hour" (p. 157). He also makes telling remarks about the region as a whole. From 1973 to 1990, cumulative Arab aid from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to the poorer Arab states and Turkey was nominally "more than three times" that of the US Marshall Plan to Western Europe (p. 63). Yet, nearly 14 million boys and girls were deprived of primary schooling, and nearly 80 million adults were illiterate in 1992, 49 million of whom were women (p. …

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