The economic performance of Arab countries during the last twenty years has been miserable. True, the region's economic growth rate edged out the former Soviet bloc or increasingly war-torn Africa, but per-capita incomes declined slightly, a dramatic turn of event for a region that had had solid growth in the 1960's and which led the world in growth during the oil-charged 1970's. This terrible economic record has had powerful political repercussions, tempering the enthusiasm of once-optimistic Arab nationalists for challenging the West and feeding discontent with autocratic governments. Documenting the Arab economic nose-dive and its political impact would make a fascinating account.
Rivlin, an economist at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, has not told this story but underplayed it; his introductory scene-setting chapter is about disputes among economists about what causes growth, rather than about the urgent Arab need for an answer to that question. His study offers a solid introduction to the Arab economies, accessible to a general reader not well versed in economics nor a close observer of the region. Three chapters describe the economic demography, the disproportion of natural resources (much oil, little water), and the state of the region's industry and agriculture. Another chapter describes the structural adjustment programs in the reforming countries, namely, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, while a fifth analyzes in considerable detail the sad state of Syria's economy. Reflecting the focus on narrowly economic topics, the book goes light on issues like corruption, unproductive expenditures (e.g., military), and social barriers to effective use of women's labor potential.