I recently attended a short lecture on sustainability, the Arab Spring and the Middle East at Manchester University. Relli Shechter from Ben Gurion University, spoke about the rise of a consumer culture in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. His main thesis was that during the oil boom period of the mid-70s and 80s (which affected countries such as Egypt as well as the Gulf Nations), there was an explosion of consumerism which shaped aspirations and the social discourse around money and status. This commercialisation expressed itself in everything from cheap housing, the suburbanisation of the village to the commercialisation of religious holidays such as Ramadan.
Obviously the consumer boom varied across the region and so Egypt didn’t witness the same of level of commercialisation that Saudi Arabia did with its concrete villas, foreign maids, drivers and mega-malls. This consumer boom did however lead to growing inequality and so nations made an authoritarian trade-off to stabilize their inequitable consumer societies. This took a particularly conservative and religious turn in Saudi Arabia but there was a more subtle shift in Egypt towards Islamism to counter Nasserism (1), states Shachter.
The one tension that remained was that between growing economic choice and the narrowing political choice. Economic growth in the region also didn’t amount to economic development and so some level of instability and anxiety remained. On the Arab Spring, Shechter states the uprisings were mainly motivated by a growing demand for political change and economic equality. Whilst he admitted that he doesn’t know what a sustainable Middle East would look like, he believes that it is unlikely the Arab Spring will usher in a more sustainable region. With a global recession, limited infrastructure that would aid a transition to a more sustainable economy, he states that is looks like business as usual for now.
He did however add that the Arab Spring is still in motion and that no-one really know what its outcome will be – that certainty should allow us to remain optimistic.
1) Nasserism is a pan-Arab nationalist and largely secular ideology bassed on the thinking of the former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.