Throughout the world governments are presently revitalizing their economies - some through drastic reforms, others through laws that streamline their systems. Arab economies, however, are not being liberalized quickly enough. Arab countries have not participated fully in the trade liberalization drive and so have not derived as much benefit as they should. These observations were made by Peter Sutherland former head of the International trade body, GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).
Years of economic decay, bureaucratic bunglings and a lack of vision have placed Arab economies at the bottom of the scale. What is more frustrating are the obstacles to trade which prevent all but the strongest from venturing into the region.
These obstacles have prevented the flow of capital which went painlessly to other economies, such as those in Asia and Latin America. Obstacles also arose from a lack of clear and well-defined banking procedures as well as restrictions from various monetary agencies.
While other countries liberalized and embarked on investment drives, too many Arab countries were content with printing glossy brochures saying how they could provide industrial facilities which unfortunately existed only in the expensively-produced brochures.
What was even more disturbing to potential investors was the lack of accurate statistics. Different ministries gave different figures. And for the disciplined peoples of South East Asia, this was a serious indication that all was not well. The lack of demographical studies, in addition to a lack of market surveys and other relevant information, contributed significantly to the absence of outside trade and investment.
The tussle between the "B's" - business and bureaucracy - is obvious. Where, in a normal situation, captains of business and industry march together with bureaucrats, here each one competes with the other. It is, therefore, of vital importance that in order for development to take place, a change in the way of operating - and not only a cosmetic one - must occur.
The Arabs also watch, wait and see; they should by now, however, have had enough of this. Others have undertaken reforms and made progress. Arabs wait and see.
Liberal economies usher in prosperity while trade barriers, restrictive ownership rules, closed financial markets, a lack of data and information create obstacles to free trade in Arab countries.
It is imperative that, as we approach the 21st century, Arab governments abolish archaic rules and regulations and streamline their legal and administrative structures to attract foreign investors. Arab countries must also diversify. As Sutherland said, they will reap additional benefits through greater economic growth.
The Arabs have no choice. Either they can shape up and get their act together or they will remain perpetual bystanders, watching the participants in the world trading system move forward as they are left behind.
Shall we take hold of our fate or leave it for others to dictate to us?
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