Wednesday, December 18, 2019

USA's Strategy in Trade War is More Complex than Reported

No one has written a decent article explaining USA's perspective on trade vis a vis China, so I'll throw my hat in the ring. As with any negotiation, whether China "wins" depends on its ability to ascertain USA's ulterior motives. (Lawyers know no matter how specific the final language of an agreement, there is always room for interpretation.) 

Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, wants to obviate China's usual currency devaluation in order to stimulate its domestic economy. Stated another way, the U.S. is trying to increase domestic Chinese consumer consumption by reducing the two countries' trade deficit. Why is this American objective potentially destabilizing for China? 

With so much else at stake, American "experts" erroneously emphasize the financial value of China's promises of agricultural purchases, believed to total 32 billion USD over the next two years. In reality, America's main goals are to 1) stop China's ability to fluctuate its currency unilaterally, thus limiting its power to assist export-oriented businesses (whether SOE or otherwise); 2) stop China's "free" technological gains through IP transfers, including software code, thereby increasing the cost of competing with USA corporations; and 3) stop China's alleged procrastination in reforming its judicial system, which, due to an alleged lack of independence, appears to tolerate a laissez-faire attitude towards IP violations. Thus, China's agreement to purchase American agricultural products are the Republican Party's opening salvo aimed at advancing a Trojan Horse reshaping China's entire economy

To understand the challenges in achieving viable compromises, remember that USA's economy is consumer-driven. According to some sources, consumer spending comprises a whopping 68% of America's entire economy. A consumer-driven economy allows for higher individual debt, more private enterprise, and less government interference. Though much of China's recent GDP growth is from consumer spending, its path from "developing" to "developed" status has been through non-consumer infrastructure spending and exports. 
China's success thus far should not be overlooked. From Singaporean professor Danny Quah: 
In absolute terms, the average person in the bottom half of the US income distribution today is worse off than the average person in 1980 in the US... [but] the people at the bottom half of China's income distribution today are four times better off than they were 30 years ago.
America desires less restricted markets within China and a less export-oriented economy because domestic Chinese consumption would tilt towards USA/EU products. In other words, it wants to rewrite the rules of the game to favor its own economic model (domestic consumer spending, privatization) over China's (government-driven growth that has taken 750 to 850 million Chinese out of poverty). I don't fault the U.S. Trade Representative's approach. As of today, American Nike is far better than Chinese LiNing, American Ford far better than Chinese Geely, EU-Unilever and EU-Nestlé far better than any Chinese company, and so on. Why the gap in quality and reputation? 
From World Bank
I'll say it again: because China has focused on infrastructure and other government-driven projects rather than domestic consumerism, it is just now trying to move up the consumer supply chain. (It has already moved to the top in ports, roads, trains, solar energy, etc.) In fact, China is well-positioned to compete in the global consumer market because its per capita GDP recently reached the "magic" 10,000 USD number, at which point most people, especially younger people, feel comfortable trying new items and upgrading personal preferences (e.g., pork to beef, the latest smartphone, etc.). 
For its part, USA is trying to impede China's shift into USA's economic specialty of consumerism through tariffs (hurting China's exports), technological blocks (hurting Huawei), legal mechanisms (using Western countries' court systems to threaten criminal charges against Chinese executives), and manipulating oil prices ("In 2018, China had record oil and gas imports and remains the number one crude oil importer in the world after surpassing the United States in 2017 and is the number two natural gas importer, behind Japan"). 

I see little chance of success for the United States in the short-term because China still has numerous options (Manila and Jakarta ports instead of HK and Shanghai) and alternate suppliers (oil and otherwise), allowing it to soften the blow of any US trade restriction. More importantly, China's government regularly publishes five to ten year economic plans, and if an American objective runs contrary to stated governmental aims, it seems unlikely China is willing to lose face by acceding to American demands. 
Over 1,000 pages on governance.
To its credit, China knows it currently lacks expertise building globally recognized, consistent brands and has failed to replicate other countries' branding successes, whether Japan or South Korea. (I dislike K-pop, but South Korea's outsized influence in Asia's entertainment scene shows remarkable prowess in generating consumer demand.) In Chinese-majority Singapore, I have seen zero Chinese Luckin Coffee stores but plenty of Taiwanese bubble tea shops and American Starbucks, indicating China has yet to operate comfortably within other countries' regulatory systems. 

Incredibly, replicating and improving global supply chains has proven easier than building products everyone wants and can access within those supply chains. If China has to divert spending that could otherwise be used to attract competitive ad agencies, international legal experts, and other fundamental blocks of consumerism, then it risks being left behind at the exact moment it opens markets to foreign competition and its own consumers can afford to differentiate between domestic and international brands regardless of tariffs. 

The West beat the Soviet Union not because America's approach towards human rights or privacy was fundamentally different--post-Snowden and Church Committee investigations, we know both West and East are and were surveillance and military-driven. Yet, despite more similarities than differences, the West succeeded because it was able to create better stories by leveraging innovation through the private sector and parlaying substantial development risk onto private banks. (See, for example, USA's Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, through which the federal government can allow or disallow bank branch expansion based on geographic and income-based diversity of loans.) 

Once upon a time, Ronald Reagan and the West could advance a credible anti-Communist narrative because America's diversity, refugee policies, private sector loans, oil access, and bankruptcy rules trumped its inconsistencies. Rather than worry about the U.S. Trade Representative's non-numerical demands, China should be asking itself the following questions: What will China's narrative be? And will it be able to create a stable and credible one if, moving forward, it is forced to increase the value of its currency to support greater domestic consumer demand? 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat

Bonus: A few caveats: 

First, a weak or weaker currency does not guarantee a country will export more than it imports. Indonesia--a country with oil, gold, natural gas, and timber--has a relatively weak currency. Bloomberg News reported on December 16, 2019 that Indonesia's "imports of consumer goods surged and exports contracted for a 13th straight month." 

Second, the broad language disclosed so far reminds me of USA's most recent attempt to mediate between North and South Korea. (Regarding China and USA, what exactly are the components of "high-standard commitments to refrain from competitive devaluations" & enforcement "mechanisms"?) A year later, nothing truly substantive has changed between North and South Korea despite the hype surrounding diplomatic efforts; furthermore, as of last month, according to Reuters' Joyce Lee and Ju-min Park, "The United States is 'very actively' trying to persuade North Korea to come back to negotiations... as a year-end North Korean deadline for U.S. flexibility approaches."

Similarly, I predict these American-Chinese talks will be much ado about nothing and another chapter in America's habit of overreaching post-Vietnam-War. Also, I'd be lying 
if I said I wasn't curious to see if China tries to use its purchasing commitments to influence America's 2020 elections. Interesting times, eh? 

President Xi Jinping (December 31, 2019):

"Human history, like a river, runs forever, witnessing both peaceful moments and great disturbances." 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Homebody Chronicles

Shopping. That's what I do when I'm alone, playing house husband in Singapore. For the last four years, I've rarely stayed in one place for long, and I was surprised how quickly I satisfied the "bored housewife" stereotype. After two weeks of housesitting from 8:00AM to 7:30PM, I've spent unreasonable amounts of time shopping online and watching Netflix, my generation's versions of Home Shopping Network and daytime soap operas. (Feel free to mock "Peloton Wife," but I understand the Peloton bike's intended audience.) Why are shopping malls doing well in developing countries like Philippines and Indonesia but not in developed countries like Japan and USA? Part of the answer must be the dwindling population of affluent and bored housewives, not just fewer overall births. 

One unexpected consequence of being home alone? Well, being alone. In an era when technology is supposed to make it easier to connect with locals, websites and apps are still driven by advertising and sponsorships, meaning the new "friend" you meet at an event might be getting a commission or other kickback from the venue. (I once tried to buy a book directly from a small publisher and was told I could only buy it if I downloaded the Venmo app.) Instead of meaningful connections, the internet has increased loneliness for many people by providing greater opportunities to make fake friends and yet, we're shocked, shocked, fake news has become prevalent. 

Despite expecting routine, I didn't anticipate the steepness of my productivity decline. By week two, staying inside all day in my underwear was an acceptable schedule, and going out became an event worthy of careful color-matching. When younger, I noticed stay-at-home dads and moms tended to be nice and well-dressed. It's that way when you're always looking for friends around the corner until eventually, you start nibbling any bait in front of you. Those jokes about sleeping with the mailman or delivery agent? They're not jokes. They're the realistic output of a silent-suffering society starving for connection. I've heard of older women taking part-time jobs at retail establishments like Williams-Sonoma for the employee discount, but now I know the real reason for Williams-Sonoma and every other "upscale" retail establishment--they, like every other successful business in America, peddle cures for loneliness. 

Thankfully, it's not all snake oil. Relationships thrive on routines. Give your girlfriend her favorite Starbucks drink at the end of a long day for a week, and you might have added a full year to your relationship's probable longevity. As for online discourse, it degenerated the moment we no longer had to expend paper, ink, and a stamp to deliver our thoughts, but the joy we feel when a verified user (or his or her PR team) responds to a tweet or comment remains legitimate. 

Speaking of relationships and online messaging, the ability to instantaneously connect with one's spouse during the working day has probably increased divorce rates. In the first week of my isolation chamber, er, stay-at-home vacation, I snickered at a NY Times' piece about a husband's failure to put away a shirt. By the second week, I snickered no more. When alone, everything is magnified, and your life revolves around finding interesting things to say, do, and see, a battle you don't always win. So if a friend says she's going to bring or mail you an item in three days, the related anticipation might be the highest of highs--and, if she happened to forget, the lowest of lows--in Day 3. 

If someone was visiting, I'd jump in the shower and freshen up better than any desperate housewife. I've bought cologne and pomade exactly twice in forty years, but had I seen the right discount online, you'd better believe my inner "metrosexual" was making a comeback. Given such efforts, I expected similar levels of effort on the other end. Did a full minute pass between my text and a response? Congratulations! You're now on my personal "Do Not Call" list. By the second minute, I'd already contemplated a hundred scenarios in which my friend had died, preferably via self-immolation--oblivious to my own unreasonableness. (Husbands and wives, take note: what you and the rest of the world consider reasonable does not apply in the vacuum of an adult-free home, with children or without.)

Ever wonder why America has so many churches? Stay-at-home parents need places to go, and the American government has failed to adequately promote affordable childcare or child-friendly policies. Last I heard, Congress tried to prove it cared about taxpayers by passing a law giving federal employees--and no one else--paid family leave. As someone who favors small government, I am always surprised to learn the true extent of religious institutions' influence--almost all my local city and county council-members went to private Catholic schools and/or Catholic universities--because I am single and childless and try to avoid hospitals, schools, and "nonprofits." In context, once one sees an invisible mass of humanity alone at home, struggling to make meaningful human contact, the political picture becomes clear: if government does not actively enter the transportation, healthcare, and childcare markets, voters and non-voters are asking to have their public institutions supplanted by anyone peddling snake oil--as long as there's free food at the 3pm event. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I hear a knock at the door. I need to practice my flirty face. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (December 2019) 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Thoughts on Britain's General Election 2019: Greed is Good

I'm disappointed but unsurprised by the U.K.'s general election. Though neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn (Leader of "Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition") are inspirational, it would be a mistake to credit or blame either man for tonight's results. Personally, I don't understand why Labour fielded a candidate who, in 2016, suffered a no confidence vote in which 172 of his 229 fellow Labour MPs opposed him, but that's another topic. Gaffes aside, we must finally admit the public's loss of faith in government's ability to advance public goods. How did we reach this miserable spot, with an out-of-touch millionaire union organizer battling an inept pro-American twat for the mantle of British leadership? I shall offer some clues. 
Voter turnout was between 50 to 75% with an average of 67%, meaning
over 1 out of every 4 British adults has lost faith in their political system,
despite having the numerical power to swing elections.
1. Surveillance Capitalism Tilts the Playing Field against Individual Autonomy and thus Shared Liberal Values

The most surveilled cities in the world are in China, U.S.A., and the U.K. In the 17th century, Cardinal Richelieu reportedly said, "If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." (As a European Catholic, he ought to know.) In 2006, Bruce Schneier echoed his sentiments: "Watch someone long enough, and you'll find something to arrest -- or just blackmail -- with." What, you may ask, does general surveillance have to do with general elections? 

By the time a country has achieved the capability--and insufficient political resistance--to spy on most of its citizens, a security state (aka a police state) is already in place, rendering politics more spectacle than crucible. The most effective propaganda comes from such police states, because the security apparatus controls information, an advantage promoting aligned media operations through which authorities can arrest, frame, sue, and blackmail opponents with impunity. In contrast, non-police states allow lawyers and journalists to gain information on equal footing as private and public security forces, building loyal audiences subject to independent scrutiny. Only the latter dynamic allows voters a reasonable chance at seeing honest, non-biased information. (The truth may be out there, but sometimes it hides well enough to never be found.) What happens to accountability without unbiased information? Politicians and academics, responsible for crafting legislation that protects their fellow residents, receive distorted information, guaranteeing failure. 

Government failures have consequences, of course. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden once asked, "What do you do when the most powerful institutions in society have become the least accountable to society?" To reach a point where his question holds weight, first there has to be "a system that makes the population vulnerable for the benefit of the privileged." One path leading to certain dystopia involves a system of widespread surveillance rendering the general population dependent on biased information, allowing security and intelligence entities to manipulate voters. The British series Black Mirror, in "Waldo Moment," aptly illustrated our current path: a world where selective editing, enough spending on advertisements, and carnival barkers can make anyone honest to appear dishonest--and vice-versa. In such topsy-turvy environments, even the most earnest citizens eventually give up trying to ascertain the truth. After all, the truth is rarely profitable, whereas propaganda is inherently profitable because it is a form of marketing and therefore financed from birth. 

It was not always this way. In the pre-digital-surveillance age, if a government, billionaire, or corporation wanted to tar your reputation, invade your privacy, or remove you from influence, they'd have to physically reveal themselves (e.g., arrest, spying) or leave evidence behind (e.g., a paper trail, a frivolous lawsuit, a body). The existence of a physical trail limited abuses of power as long as lawyers and journalists had the public's credibility and thus attention. Absent such credibility, voters logically favor short-term over long-term results, an environment in which any government spending decision can appear suspicious. Worse yet, distortions tend to multiply because biased information favors groups over individuals in the same way propaganda overwhelms truth; in times of suspicion, humanity's herd instinct seeks safety in numbers, nuance be damned. Meanwhile, the intangibility of the decay caused by dishonesty accelerates entropy as people with resources try to create estuaries apart from the mainstream to better control their flow of information, a tactic that entrenches existing corruption while allowing the Establishment to slander separatists with charges of insufficient patriotism. 

In this manner, modern times have brought invisible and intertwined plagues: the diminution of the individual; the loss of faith in collective action; and greater difficulty achieving mutually-beneficial political changes. Powerful entities can seemingly be stopped only by other large powerful entities--not the ballot box or determined individuals. Within this paradigm, entities able to afford surveillance--or protection from it--can better protect their preferred people, including political players, who are often egotistical fronts distracting from or justifying previous economic and banking decisions. As such, we know about Jamal Khashoggi's murder not because of independent journalism or lawyers but because a state with surveillance and military power comparable to Saudi Arabia disclosed its investigation--presumably after it received approval from an even more powerful state. 

In a world where groups are advantaged a priori over individuals, constant surveillance means supposedly "free," democratic Britain eventually becomes fundamentally similar to so-called repressive, totalitarian China--with almost everyone lacking time, legal knowledge, and translation skills to escape a fishbowl existence where most information is controlled or provided out of context. 

[Bruce Schneier: "If we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness... Too many wrongly characterize the debate as 'security vs. privacy.' The real choice is liberty versus control."]

2. Misinformation Means Democratic Representatives are Less Effective and Less Responsive

If elites and politicians do not receive accurate information, they cannot fix or even identify existing problems, much less future ones, and the public tends to shift allegiance to the executive branch (aka the police and military), who are closer to the ground and who have the necessary technology to gather the best information. 
Meanwhile, in Singapore, a former British colony, the PM is sharing math formulas on Twitter.
There's a reason misinformation affects so-called totalitarian states less: as long as they value technology, which allows efficient tracking of tangible items, they operate from an advantageous starting point by not placing abstract ideals above concrete economic gains. The more government becomes corrupt or inefficient, the more soul-selling becomes logical under a cost-benefit analysis. 

[Meanwhile, in Scotland, where politicians are still respected and respectable: 

"I don’t pretend that every single person who voted SNP yesterday will necessarily support [Scottish] independence, but there has been a strong endorsement in this election of Scotland having a choice over our future; of not having to put up with a Conservative government we didn’t vote for and not having to accept life as a nation outside the EU." -- SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon] 

3.  Personal Gain Trumps Collective Concern as Politicians Become Increasingly Out-of-Touch

The world's economic engine isn't as complicated as it seems. Countries that successfully provided viable alternatives to entrenched interests using immigrants, private sector competitors, and/or uncompromising political leaders (e.g., M. Thatcher) minimized self-serving corruption--as long as they improved consumer access to greater choices. Unfortunately, as technology became essential and the cost of competing in larger markets increased, traditional methods of exacting honesty from corrupt groups dissolved. As I wrote earlier, no matter how true one's outrage, power is now necessary to combat power, and too often, power tends to bargain with itself, making compromises further violating the individual. 

An additional factor explains our amoral political arena. In the post-Thatcher and post-Reagan world, elections are "winner take-all" contests, with losing districts certain to receive less or same government funding at the same time as winning districts receive more. Within countries where government is directly involved in medical care, education, and transportation, elections matter greatly in terms of employment growth and therefore economic success. Not swimming with the tide may mean economic stagnation, and as consumer debt soaks the world, the promise of a dollar means more than the promise of hope, justice, or equality. 

4. Conclusion

To summarize, as power and information consolidate and promote biased information, most people lose faith in public institutions. Consequently, voters are unable to depend on abstract ideals, and whichever candidate convinces a majority they will have more money will usually prevail--even if voters don't tend to understand inflation

Do you have enough clues to solve the mystery yet? 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

Bonus I: "The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn't seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of rent, of medicines all depend on political decisions. He even prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn't know that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber, and, worst of all, corrupt officials." (From 1988, paraphrased, "Terra Nossa: Newsletter of Project Abraço, North Americans in Solidarity with the People of Brazil, Τόμοι 1-7") 

Bonus II: as you can see from the charts below, the British pound increased 3% relative to the US dollar once it was clear the Conservative Party would gain substantial seats. This currency increase helps the British government, which settles debt in USD, as well as British multinational corporations, which have debt denominated in US dollars. Seen one way, though British exports may become more expensive, voting Conservative or creating propaganda in favor of Conservative votes has generated a paper return of billions of pounds. 

Bonus III: Dave Chappelle, playing host of fictional show, "I Know Black People" on Comedy Central.

Chappelle: "How can black people rise and overcome?"

White Contestant: "Get out and vote." [buzz]

Chappelle: "That is incorrect, I'm afraid."

Bonus IV: re: my comment above on gender influencing the election, please see the following graph. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

Sharjah: A for Effort, C for Vision

If you are a shaikh, sheikh, emir, sultan, or king in Sharjah, you probably tear out small clumps of your hair at the end of each day. While Dubai, your flashy neighbor 20 minutes away, disregards every hadith and Quranic surah about materialism, you have done everything according to the book—whether academic or religious—and it’s still not enough.

Part of Sharjah’s aversion to ostentation may come from being the preferred location for British elites since 1933. Today, no one doubts Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the richer and more influential of the seven different kingdoms, but once upon a time, pre-oil, the UAE was nothing more than desert and fishermen—and Sharjah its crown jewel.
That’s why Sharjah, not Dubai, is home to the UAE’s first cinema (founded in 1945), 
first commercial airline (Air Arabia) and first airport. Air travel and distant military alliances soon require services, including mail delivery (email and cell phones did not always exist), restaurants, translators, banking, wire transfers, telecommunications, and other commerce. The 1932 contract giving the British permission to use Sharjah as a de facto military base is astoundingly simple—11 years of straightforward obligations summarized in just a few pages, referring to “Sharjah and its villages” and prohibiting “evildoers.” 
The British needed Sharjah to ensure access to its most important colony, India, and Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi II wasn’t averse to modernizing his sultanate, creating a worthwhile alliance. 
British influence continues to this day, with almost everyone in Sharjah fluent in English and the UAE’s aviatory knowledge having evolved into a successful space venture.
As a testament to the UAE’s Islamic-based tolerance, Sharjah is spectacularly diverse, with Filipinos, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Africans, and many other nationalities living side-by-side. At least half of any cinema’s movies are Indian in origin, involving dialects I’ve never seen before. 
It may be one of the few places in the world an African immigrant and his/her children can experience zero racism merely by donning the local dress. Much credit must be given to Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, the UAE’s most distinguished scholar. Many pitfalls existed on the way from fishing outpost to trading middleman to pearl diving to gold broker to oil producer (in 1958), and the Al Qassimi family committed few errors—except ones made by all other well-meaning politicians. Dr. Al Qassimi’s charity is everywhere in Sharjah, and therein lies the rub: every action taken to re-shape and modernize Sharjah while reducing poverty has also held it back, because what works for cold Britain and vast America does not address the needs of a small, scorching hot kingdom.

Instead of building asphalt roads—which, being oil byproducts, absorb heat and increase temperatures—Sharjah should have built trams or a subway. (Even relatively poor Casablanca, Morocco has a European-built tram.) Instead of making Sharjah unwalkable due to its street designs and absence of widespread beverage vending machines, the Sheikh should have known if people cannot walk in a city, they will stay inside and increase their chances of diabetes. Rather than install air conditioning everywhere—which increases overall temperatures by pushing hot air outside—the kingdom should have considered how to better utilize wind and shade. Above all, rather than rely on Western and Indian technology—which binds them to foreign security practices—the UAE should have invested in domestic technological development so its apps were more than just copies of Uber (Careem) and Zomato (Talabat). (By the way, even Sharjah’s tourism sector is out of sync—it offers a slick handbook to download, but many of the recommendations, such as “Al Arsaha Public Coffee Shop,” are not listed on Google Maps, making them impossible to find.)

To summarize, modernizing the UAE by hiring American and British companies and adding Arab and Muslim charity/zakat has proven problematic. 
Neither the British nor the Americans still view the UAE—or any other Arab country—as an essential port or aviation hub, shifting the relationship from long-term partner to mere oil supplier. Meanwhile, India’s focus on homegrown technology has made it the desired partner of both the West and the East, despite its rapidly declining natural resources and its questionable track record on the environment and physical infrastructure.

Aside from the UAE’s poor city planning due to accepting developer plans initially tailored for other cities and countries, most of its small businesses make little sense. While London has numerous small bookstores surrounded by cafés and one of the world’s most innovative libraries, the United Nations has never designated it a “World Book Capital.” In 2019, consistent with its desire to be seen as the UAE’s cultural capital, Sharjah became a so-called “World Book Capital” and “City of Books,” but other than a single oversized book display in my nearby McDonald’s, I have yet to see an actual bookstore worth visiting. 
One gets the sense UNESCO and other UN-affiliated organizations often bestow awards out of political reciprocity rather than merit, and without doing any research, I’m certain the UAE has contributed to the UN more than most nations. Furthermore, many of the small businesses I do see must be supported by the king’s beneficence, because while useful ten years ago, they are no longer viable—unless you think printer cartridge replacement, typing centers (not internet cafés), or document copying are the future.

Like with most problems not solved at their root, poor city development segues into other bad decisions, throwing politicians and kings into the hands of shopping mall and condominium developers—worsening sprawl, destroying local flavor, corralling imagination into mere building exteriors, and cementing the unsustainable. Ideally, the UAE’s most valuable partner would be Japan, which has a similar climate and the world’s most advanced city in Tokyo. Yet, what is the one major country in Sharjah I see having little to no influence? If you guessed Japan, sadly, you are correct. Political idealists despairing at globalization’s backlash should ask themselves: what is the point of globalization if you have money but can’t figure out which city makes the most sense to emulate because your politicians and students haven’t bothered learning Japanese and can’t free themselves from a post-WWII economic framework in which their natural resources are traded under a Western financial system?

Egyptian leader Gamal Adbul Nasser must have seen all these issues when he founded the Arab League in Cairo in 1945, bringing together Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. When he died in 1970, the Arab world lost its best visionary a year before Britain promised its citizens it would withdraw all forces east of the Suez. Coinciding with British withdrawal was the birth of the UAE in 1971, then referred to as the “Trucial States” (per an 1836 treaty with Britain).

Imagine being Abu Dhabi-born Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan on December 2, 1971, the UAE’s first president, knowing since 1968 he would no longer receive British protection or revenue from use of its facilities. Who would protect the UAE’s oil shipments? How would his country access reasonably-priced shipping insurance? Whom could the UAE trust? Then imagine one year later, Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, one-time ruler of Sharjah, attempting one of many coups in the Trucial States’ history, in this case, failing. The number of assassinations and coups in the Trucial States from 1926 to 1972 are too many to recount, but as far as I know, no coups or assassinations occurred after 1972 or during Sheikh Zayed’s rule. Like the prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the Sheikh seems to have united different Arab tribes, ushering in an era of peace and forward-thinking views on women’s rights, one reason the UAE is more tolerant than many other Arab countries.

With Gamal Nasser’s death in 1970, Sheikh Zayed’s death in 2004, and Lee Kuan Yew’s death in 2015, the East may have lost its most astute political leaders. In the modern era, where trade, technology, and debt link all countries’ economies together, the absence of leaders like Sheikh Zayed is showing across the Islamic world, as too many politicians with too much money fail to forge a path on their own and choose alliances with countries and politicians out of historical habit. Who will be the UAE’s next Sheikh Zayed? Who will be the Arab world’s new Nasser, who negotiated a peaceful return of the Suez Canal back to Egyptians and who saw the Muslim world's potential for trade agreements earlier than most? Until we know the answers, expect more political instability not just in the Arab world, but in all countries that no longer have the wisdom to move forward in ways individually-tailored to their own citizens’ needs. As Shakespeare might say, “A decent politician, a decent politician! My kingdom for a decent politician!”

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

Bonus: 1) every "Union Taxi" cab I hailed tried to cheat me--use another service if you can; and 2) if you visit, don't forget to try kanafeh and other Arab sweets.