Home / Thurow on the new knowledge economy, the Arab world, terrorism, and the need for Oprah

Thurow on the new knowledge economy, the Arab world, terrorism, and the need for Oprah

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(This review is based on a longer version that appeared recently on my own blog.)

M.I.T. economist Lester Thurow, in his book Fortune Favors the Bold presents some interesting theories regarding the increasing economic backwardness of the Arab world, and its potential to fuel future terrorism against the West. Thurow’s book has some very thought-provoking ideas relevant to both the arts and global terrorism.

I wrote a past post on my own blog on why the U.S. should spend resources on Arab-language “propaganda” like the Al Hurra satellite T.V. channel, which broadcasts out of Washington, D.C. at U.S. taxpayer expense.

Some U.S. think tank analysts have argued that Al Hurra isn’t doing very well, in part because it is perceived as propaganda in the Arab world, and in part because it is too similar to other Arab-language news channel offerings. They point out that coverage of Rumsfeld’s testimony during the U.S. Senate hearings on Abu Gharib “transfixed many Arabs,” because Arab political processes were notoriously opaque, and Arab political leaders were almost never accountable to anyone, let alone elected representatives. Instead of broadcasting news, Al Hurra should start carrying Arabic language translations of selections of C-SPAN programs likely to be of interest to Arabs. Eventually, Al Hurra might obtain permission and resources to broadcast the normally closed deliberations of Arab government bodies as well. This would distinguish it from other Arab news broadcasters, and provide programming of proven interest to Arab audiences (the workings of democratic government in action).

However, in his book, Thurow cites some remarkable statistics about the Arab world.

Google found the same remarkable U.N. statistics on Aljazeera: although there are approximately the same number of Spanish and Arabic language speakers in the world (270 million), more books are translated into Spanish in a single year than have been translated into Arabic in the last millennia!

Thurow argues in his book that, while in the past the vast fortunes and wealth have been created through the command of natural resources, today the great creator of national (and personal) wealth comes through command of ideas and technological know-how. He argues that, just as there were regions that were big losers and big winners in past economic revolutions (e.g., the Industrial Revolution), there will be regions that will be big losers in this new knowledge-based revolution. While most other regions of the globe are thoroughly plugged into the modern world, if you’re an Arab who only speaks Arabic (the majority) then you don’t have any idea what the modern world is like since nothing gets translated into Arabic! (Thurow is proud to point that two of his own books have been part of the tiny number (10K!) of books translated into Arabic over the last millennia, so at least Arabic speakers are reading his particular argument!)

This would suggest how the U.S. might spend its resources on the most effective Arab media. (I argue in this past post on my blog why this is important, but there has been a wide-ranging discussion on what T.V. would be the best to translate into Arabic: news, Carl Sagan, “Leave It To Beaver,” or the ever-popular “Dallas”?) Rather than subsidizing an Arab-language T.V. channel, which is expensive, the Pentagon might just air-drop machine translations of the international best-sellers over the Arabian peninsula. (What can I say? Our incredible folks in uniform believe in air power and dropping things from airplanes. Maybe a little too much.) Those of you who speak another language and have tried the Altavista Babelfish translations know there are problems with machine translation. But, my sources in the loop with the Pentagon inform me, after all, that the Pentagon has the best unclassified machine translation systems around — definitely an improvement over Babelfish. And, the Pentagon has people that believe media penetration is good for promoting democracy and U.S. interests, so this is the sort of thing they would probably be inclined to do.

Unfortunately, the Aljazeera page goes on to point out that, even those few novels written or translated into Arabic tend not to be read. Despite the huge number (270 million) of Arabic speakers, a best-selling novel in Arabic will have a run of only 5,000 copies, compared to hundreds of thousands of copies when printed in a language such as Spanish, with a comparable number of speakers!

This latter statistic probably goes a long to explaining why virtual no books get translated into Arabic: Arabs, it seems, don’t like to read books much, even the ones printed in Arabic. Even if the Pentagon air-dropped the latest international best-sellers over the Arabian peninsula, they might not actually pick up the books and read them. It seems they do, however, watch Arabic-language satellite television (and surf the Web), so we’re back to determining the best content for Al-Hurra.

(What we would really need is not an Arab-language C-SPAN but an Arab version of Oprah to start her book club over there. Those folks over there need to start reading more…. Make book club shows, not war!)

Given these statistics, I have to agree with Thurow, however, on his assessment for the Arab speaking world: if your people don’t read, they can’t possible take advantage of the knowledge-based economic revolution that is sweeping the globe. This means continued poverty for most of the Arab world, and that, in turn, means a continued problem with terrorism for the West. (Aljazeera continues with devasting quotes from the U.N.’s report: “educational curricula in Arab countries that ‘bred submission, obedience, subordination and compliance rather than free critical thinking.'” Yuck. No wonder the Madrasses cause so many problems for the West.)

The problem of terrorism resulting from an increasingly economically backward Arab world is perhaps the most pressing immediate problem for the United States. Thurow’s book presents the problem in stark relief.

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About E.E.A. Eaton

  • r tay

    Where can I find an Arabic edition of Said Aburish’s book Nasser the last Arab? Many thanks for any help,


  • Thurow claims he also found the U.N. statistics shocking/surprising, but was able to independently verify them. Aljazeera also seems to accept them.

    Baghdad University (or Iraq) may not be the best example. I recall in the discussion here in the U.S. during the run-up to the invasion that Iraq was perhaps the most literate Arab country, but in terms of overall literacy as well as percentage of the population with technical college degrees. (In fact, some European anti-war activists have speculated, perhaps misguidedly, that this literacy made Iraq a more tempting target for U.S. war planners.) So, Baghdad U and Iraq are more the exception than the rule.

    According to an article in Foreign Affairs, the universities in Saudi Arabia supposedly teach a program of almost exclusively Islamic studies. Anyone else must study abroad (either in a place like Baghdad, or, more popularily, in the West.) Osama bin Laden, who, as I recall, earned his college degree in that region, did manage to get some engineering and business training, although I believe he studied in Switzerland as well.

    The 1/20th figure may be an average between Iraq (where science degrees are more common) and places like Saudi Arabia (where it is supposedly very rare for students to study science.) I don’t know what the relative college populations are in the various states.

    I’m just reading teh best-selling Reading Lolitta in Tehran, and it mentions that many Western books are banned and very difficult to obtain in Iran.

    For example, Jane Austen (so conservative she was one of the pilots for the Masterpiece Theathre U.S. TV program) is banned, perhaps because she glamorizes the British Empire. Ironically, this frivilous seems to make reading her more popular in the Iran, because it is an illegal activity. (Much as reading the “Communist Manifesto” was popular during the 1920s in the United States because a frivilous and unconstitutional law made that illegal here as well.)

    The students in the book go through great lengths to study Jane Austen as a result. However, they are forced to use Xerox machines to obtain copies, as the illegal texts are not available in bookstores.

    (In Saudi Arabia, Jane Austen is likely legal. However, Jane Austen would likely not be studied in Saudi universities at all since it is not an Islam. A woman wishing to read it on her own would need to find a male driver to drive her to a bookstore that carries Austen, which I am assuming are not the common.)

    The U.N. statistics are shocking. Thurow, as I’ve said, claims to have independently verified them, and Aljazeera seems to accept them.

    It would be interesting to have some additional verification for the sake of this blogcritics review.

    It sounds like these statistics are likely accurate for the whole pale of the Arab world, but may be less true for a specific place like Iraq that was known to be a more literate area.

  • SFC Ski

    I was not trying to contradict your statements, or the authors, more to the point, I was trying to illuminate the general reading conditions in the Arab world as I have seen it. I am not saying that Thurow or the UN or you are wrong, I am just trying to relate what is written to what I know.

    In my experience, there is no lack of books to be had, it is not as though each one is hand copied by some scribe in a madrassa, it may well be that books are more costly and so fewer are bought. I know that libraries are used often when available, probably due to the cost of an individual book.
    In some of the countries I have been to, there is the Arab equivalent of a Barnes and Noble with books of all sorts written in Arabic available. I was in the Emirates one year and I attended a Book Fair in which at least 20 separate Middle Eastern publishing houses had books for sale. Many of these publishers dealt in Arabic textbooks as well as fiction. I am curious to see how the UN classifies a book drought. Maybe fewer books are read for leisure in the case of novels, I never thought to ask any Arabs that question.

    By saying that 1/20th of Arab students study science, I am interested to know what categories that broad heading covers. At the Baghdad Universtiy, I met many students studying mechanical, electrical, chemical and computer sciences or engineering, so I am curious to see what the rest are studying.

    I definitely would not argue that an educational system that places more emphasis on rote memorization than on creative thinking will stifle its students.

    The problems with the Arab world are many, and your article does illustrate a valid part of the problem.

  • You write:

    > Don’t get the idea that most Arabs
    > don’t read, bookstores are
    > common throughout
    > the Arab world.

    But you’re not disputing the UN/Aljazeera statistics that (1) fewer books were translated into Arabic in the LAST 1000 years than were translated last year into Spanish ; and (2) A typical Spanish best-selling novel will sell a 100,000 copies, while a blockbuster in Arabic will only get 5,000? This, despite approximately equal number of Spanish and Arabic statistics.

    Those are truly shocking statistics, and do indeed suggest that “most Arabs don’t read”, at least compared with the Spanish (who read 20 — 1000+ times as much).

    > While a few Arab authors have had works
    > translated into English, they are not
    > welll known outside the Arab world.
    > Even Oprah’s book club features
    > primarily native English authors.

    I (and stats) refer to books translated into Arabic (not from Arabic into English.) By “Oprah”, I meant an Arabic-language version Oprah (presumably someone like Oprah who was an Arab). Obviously, Oprah here in the U.S. will feature native English speakers, because the vast majority of books published are in the English language. An Arab version of Oprah would have to use more books originally published in Arabic to appeal to local audiences, but would presumably stimulate translation as well.

    > Unfortunately, the Arab world’s main
    > window to the Western world is TV, and > the opposite is also true. This hardly > leads to an objective understanding of > either culture.

    There is some truth to this. I have, at times, tried to put Amazon.com recommendations for books on the Middle East on my site in the hopes that my readers would at least obtain those recommendations from some source so that there would be less reliance on T.V.

    However, an overwhelming majority of books in the world are published in English. Even though are readership is several times that of Arab world, there isn’t really a comparison. Nor can it be entirely explained by increased wealth or literacy rates, which are usually above 50% in the Arab-speaking world. It’s clear we in the West (including the United States) read orders of magnitude more than the Middle East does.

    Indeed, Thurow would argue that, because they are currently poor, they should read more (or devour more information) because we’re in a knowledged-based economy, and they are currently knowledge-poor, while we are comparatively knowledge-rich.

    So, Thurow would argue that the Arab world needs to make this investment in books (and information) much more than we do to prevent themselves from further losing out in the new economy.

    The UN statistics also point out that only 1/20 the number of university students studying in the Arab speaking world are majoring in Science, compared to 1/5 in Korea.

    The UN cites an official educational curricula in Arab countries that “bred submission, obedience, subordination and compliance rather than free critical thinking.” This must change.

    >While I hate to use the term, the Arab
    >”educated class” is actually pretty
    >well versed in english Literature.

    While some Arabs with college degrees may be among the terrorists, for the most part the Arab “educated class” isn’t part of the problem, as they aren’t providing the grass-roots support for terrorism.

    It’s the rest (majority) of the population, that do not belong to the educated elite, who obviously need to read more if the UN/Aljazeera/Thurow statistics can be trusted.

    Finally, the UN study concludes there is a “Book Drought” in the Arab World (it is one of subheadings on the webpage), and so would seem to sharply disagree with your perception that bookstores and book reading is not uncommon in the Arab world.

  • SFC Ski

    Unfortunately, the Arab world’s main window to the Western world is TV, and the opposite is also true. This hardly leads to an objective understanding of either culture.

    Another thing to realize is that the Arab-speaking populace is almost as widespread and diverse as the Spanish speaking world is. A Tunisian Arab has a different frame of reference to the West than does a Saudi Arab.

    Don’t get the idea that most Arabs don’t read, bookstores are common throughout the Arab world. Some of the Western Lit classics, such as Shakespeare and Victor Hugo, even John Steinbeck, have been translated into Arabic, but many mass market US fiction books are not translated. I even have found some science fiction works, the equivalent of the magazine Analog or Amazing Stories, published on pulp stock in Cairo. In all the time I have spent in the Arab world, and the variety of regional newspapers I read,however, I don’t see as many book reviews as in an equivalent Western paper. While I hate to use the term, the Arab “educated class” is actually pretty well versed in english Literature.

    There is a pretty large number of academic works published by Arab authors as well.

    While a few Arab authors have had works translated into English, they are not welll known outside the Arab world. Even Oprah’s book club features primarily native English authors.

    As for Al-Hura TV, many of its programs are more like travelogues than ideological tracts, like much of the Arab world, the soundtracks are in English with subtitles in the native language. Al-Hura radio actually has a lot of talk/call-in shows, and several other Radio stations in Iraq have sprung up as well. The man-on-the street opinion interviews offer pretty good insight into the “Arab Street”, and while much of it is hardly glowing praise for the Coalition, it is not as bad as the Western media would have you believe.

  • Which makes the statistics twice as shocking and means they need an Arabic Oprah Winfrey’s bookclub twice as badly. 🙂 (270 million Arabic speakers? And they like satellite TV more than books? Oprah where are you?) 🙂

    (Hmmm, maybe I should stop writing these articles at 2AM…. Thanks; I’ll correct the article.)

  • There are 270 million arab speakers according to the Aljazeera article, not 120 million. I suspect there are a similar number of Spanish speakers (40 million spanish, 100 million mexicans, 25 million venezuelans etc.)