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The poor performance of Arab economies has been well documented, including in the much-cited Arab Human Development Report written by Arab intellectuals for the U.N. Development Program.[1] But the numbers, no matter how well presented, do not necessarily bring to life how Arab economies actually work as seen by the ordinary businessman or government official. Drawing heavily on his experience from 1998 to 2001 as The Wall Street Journal's Middle East correspondent, Glain provides a series of anecdotes about the lack of government transparency and accountability as well as the other main barriers to economic efficiency. He provides neither a structured or comprehensive account of how the economies work, much less what is needed to improve them. Glain's account is not the place to look for analysis about high politics and diplomacy. He touches on these subjects at times, but what he has to say is of uneven quality—this is obviously not his strong point. In particular, his comments about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are not insightful.

He does better when discussing the impact of politics on the economy where he skillfully musters tales from individual businessmen to bring to life how "ham-fisted, risk averse bureaucracy" stifles the rich talent of Arab entrepreneurs and workers. He gives a feel for life's frustrations with stories focused on the main problem of excessive state interference, in all its corruption, neglect, and bad management.

Glain considers six areas in successive chapters: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq. The best chapters by far are those on Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. These bring out how political interference has made two economies with such enormous potential into failures. He is particularly skillful at exposing the wide gaps between rhetoric about economic reform and the unpleasant realities of the continued dead hand of political interference to protect the well-placed. The Syria chapter is impeded by the difficulty of gathering information, and the Iraq chapter suffers from the problem of gauging how the economy is functioning under the peculiar circumstances of an occupation after decades of tyrannical rule.

Glain writes with obvious empathy for the suffering Arab peoples, and his confidence in their potential—if freed of such depressing governments—shines through. His account is a good example of the principle that the true friends of the Arabs are those who tell the brutal truth about the poor state to which they have been reduced by their leaders.

[1] See "How the Arabs Compare: Arab Human Development Report 2002," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 59-67.