The Arab 100: Politics Is Bad For Business

One of the most common criticisms of the annual World’s Most Influential Arabs List is how deliberately apolitical and therefore unhelpful the exercise is.

It’s an assessment that goes to the root of modern critiques of capitalism: the idea that money is power and if you don’t have it, you don’t matter. However, I need to point out that ranking political capital in the Arab world is not particularly inspiring or exciting, if the news are to be believed.

When I was studying in the United States, I noticed that many people who criticized capitalism did not have a concrete alternative to offer, unless “let’s live in a commune, grow our own potatoes, and go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground” counts as an alternative. In the Arab world, by contrast, critics of capitalism are too ready to jump in bed with religious fundamentalists.

Suddenly, an outhouse sounds more and more appealing.

I’m not stupid enough to think that a healthy economy will wipe the tears of suffering children and fill the sky with rainbows. I do, nevertheless, observe silly human differences put aside for the sake of a good business relationship.

It’s heartening, for example, to see more and more women climbing the ladder of success in a region where a woman working outside the home still causes heart palpitations. These women are a privileged minority, but they stand for something important and real. Family allegiances help many succeed, but if we take someone like Hillary Clinton seriously, why not an Arab woman of a similar background?

Lubna Olayan is a Saudi Arabian business leader, considered to be one of the most powerful women in the world. The implications of her persona alone are huge, and yet they are ignored by intellectuals who devote their time solely to discussing the victimhood of the Arab woman. Whataboutery erases Olyan’s success: “sure, some Saudi woman somewhere may be big, but what about…”

This is defeatism, and defeatism is dangerous. When good people throw up their hands, they cede the floor to radicals and extremists.

I don’t believe that a thinking Arab’s choices are limited to drooling complacency or making bombs. Instead, we need to develop a constructive attitude for the sake of the future of this region, financial and otherwise. There is something to learn from the trajectories of today’s influential Arabs from a political perspective, if you remember the role diplomacy plays in business.

Tearing something down is easier than building upon it, but that doesn’t always make the former right.

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