What’s the problem with the Middle East?

What’s the problem with the Middle East?

What comes to your mind when you think about the Middle East? For me, it’s the low level of connectivity. Here, we have a region composed of "clammed up" countries, but whoever crammed them together also managed to do so in such a way that they are not entirely disconnected from each other. Each exists in its own shell. They have little to compare themselves to and fail to see their own absurd condition.

Take the case of a region that is economically integrated. European countries receive an average of 80 percent of their imports from within Europe. People trade with their neighbors. In the Middle East and North Africa, on the other hand, intra-regional trade stands at a miserly 4 percent. The countries barely trade with their neighbors. If that isn’t absurd, I don’t know what is. We need to change that, but the question is, how?

The “why” question is a good place to start: Why is intra-regional trade in the Middle East so low? There are many reasons.  A big part of the answer, however, is that when people in the region ship goods to each other, 50 percent of the transportation time is spent at border crossings. Consider the absurdity of the situation for a moment. A border is a line on the map, merely a point along a freight truck’s linear path to a destination. Yet that single point of entry, on average, takes up as much time to cross as the entire road along the destination.

What happens at that border crossing? Here is another statistic: Some 38 percent of transportation costs between Middle Eastern countries comprise of “bahshish” – in other words, bribes to expedite time spent at the border crossings. That kind of a markup to pass a border, plus the lost time, is going to make the cost of trade prohibitively high. You’re better off getting that shipment of socks from the Far East, at a cheaper price and better quality. While truckers get stuck, however, terrorists cross the borders freely. Intra-regional business is booming for those guys.

Only governments can undo what governments have done. That is what I know. There are two types of countries in the region: countries that allow their citizens to interact freely and countries that do not. Turkey and Israel fit in the first category, while the rest fit in the second. Turkey extended this freedom to its citizens in the 1980s with reforms during the Turgut Özal era. The late president opened up his nation’s markets and minds. Free movement of goods, currency and people enriched Turkish citizens and strengthened their democracy. It rid the country of some lingering absurdities.

I am now looking around for a courageous Arab leader to do for his own country what Özal did for Turkey. That would be the end of the current chaos in Arab countries, and the beginning of a real Arab transformation. Mind you, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would not be where he is today without the freedoms and connectivity-enhancing reforms passed by Özal. President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt did not have the same courage to move forward on the path to freedom. Let us watch and see whether President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi can bring a new era of freedom and high level of connectivity to our clammed up region.

A higher level of connectivity in the Middle East would be good for security and prosperity in the region. And the world would certainly be a better place.