Having never travelled to the Middle East or North Africa, I have been astonished by what I have seen on television and the internet about the civil unrest in these countries. While I acknowledge that TV, the internet and YouTube do not (and cannot) portray all aspects of any one country, I have nonetheless noticed that the vast majority of people protesting in the streets of these strife-torn countries appear to be well-fed, well-clothed, with many carrying cell phones, riding on motorbikes, driving cars, etc.
That is, they look virtually indistinguishable from their Western European/US counterparts (who, presumably, do not have the same level of grievances as these people in Arab nations do).
Moreover, the cities of Tunis, Damascus, Cairo, and Amman look clean, well-tended and beautiful.
The one exception is Yemen, the poverty-stricken small nation on the southern coast of Saudi Arabia.
The images from Yemen clearly show that the people these are living under great deprivation, with a glaring lack of medical care and other amenities.
That is, Yemen “looks” like it has the magnitude of poverty one might find in, say, sub-Saharan Africa or Bangladesh.
Excluding Yemen, then, if one only knew of these other countries by the images the media has delivered, one would have to conclude that the people would have little to complain about.
However, one expert on the Middle East says looks might be deceiving.
Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn., said one must distinguish several factors when analyzing poverty in the Middle East.
“Overall, people in the Middle East and North Africa are way better off relative to the extreme levels of poverty found in Sub-Saharan Africa -- where people live on less than $1 per day,” he said.
“People in the Middle East who live under a ‘poverty line’ survive at significantly higher than $1 per day.”
Also, he said, in most “Third World” countries one would find high literacy rates and few jobless people with college degrees. However, in most of the Arab world, it has become more common to see a young college graduate who can’t find a job.
“Let’s recall that it was jobless college graduates [who] made up the core of the Tunisian uprising in January 2010,” Achilov stated.
In fact, some Arab countries which have seen unrest are downright wealthy societies.
“Bahrain is a rich country,” Achilov conceded. “Its living standards are a lot higher than in most other Middle Eastern states The uprisings in Bahrain are very unique and driven by a combination of factors: including a demand for greater civil and political liberties, as well as by sectarian issues – namely a Shia Muslim majority ruled by a Sunni Muslim elite and the resultant inequalities in power-sharing. Therefore, Bahrain's social context needs special attention. Still, it is an oil rich country.”
Even Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, remains economically far better off the most of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Achilov explains that some of the unrest in the Middle East arises from the inequitable distribution of wealth, although the states by and large provide adequate services.
“Although largely authoritarian, the Middle East/North African government systems work and do provide basic services, like healthcare, municipal services, infrastructure, etc.,” he noted.
“Also, at a societal level, local civil foundations (e.g., mosques) are very active in helping the needy with food and shelter. By needy, I refer to low-income families who may be struggling and ultimately decide to ask for assistance from a local mosque or Islamic charity foundation. Moreover, these non-governmental services are highly organized and very efficient.”
Therefore, the main issue is the wealth-poverty gap -- income inequality.
For example, the GDP per capita has been systematically rising in Egypt for years, implying that average income rose overall. Yet, when you look closer at the data, the top 20 percent of wage earners make far more than the bottom 80 percent.
“The well-being of the middle-class has plummeted in Egypt, even though average GDP/per capita rose during the same period,” Achilov said.
Also, one cannot necessarily gauge someone’s true economic status by how they dress or appear in public (this is as true in New York and Madrid, as it might be in Cairo and Tunis). Many people live beyond their means, or perhaps spend the bulk of the income on more luxurious items rather than satisfying their more mundane needs. For example, buying a Smartphone rather than actual textbooks.
Given the global explosion of consumerist culture and the ready availability of consumer goods of all shapes and sizes, it has become “trendy” for people of all income groups to purchase such things.
Perhaps the only definitive conclusion we can reach is that the Arab world occupies a place between Third World poverty and the affluence seen in Western Europe/Japan/North America.
And given that no country in the Middle East-North Africa has a government that is even remotely democratic, economic concerns are hardly the only issues on the minds of the protesters.