Thoughts from Sidi Bou Said

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Thoughts from Sidi Bou SaidMy Egyptian background has made immersion in North Africa very interesting. It’s given a convenient benchmarking tool for things like cultural traditions and food preferences, or even economic, historical and political profiles, like the role of each country’s respective militaries in the region’s decolonization experiences. Fortunately Egypt’s dialect, understood across the region because of pop culture, allowed us to survive the Franco-Arabic hybrid local dialects in Morocco and Tunisia.

During immersion we saw three countries across the political spectrum. Dubai’s absolute monarchy’s legitimacy relies on economic modernity, so it’s basically breaking all the world records it can identify. It’s relatively diversified economy does throw it in somewhat sharp relief with its more rent-seeking Gulf neighbors. In Morocco, there is a more humble constitutional monarchy working within a more complex political system and managing rising calls for reform. We got to meet with several companies and entrepreneurs in Dubai and Morocco, and the prevailing message was pro-monarchy, albeit with varying levels of nuance. The age-old Arab social contract-development for rights–seems to be at the core of many of the region’s governance systems in one way or another. One exception may be Tunisia, a three-year old democracy that recently agreed upon a new constitution and is currently busy deal-making before twin parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2014. It was extremely interesting to meet civil society, entrepreneurs and Islamist parliamentarians in Tunis, all losers under Ben Ali, as they try to navigate the most successful Arab Spring transition.

On the weekends we took history lessons from the medinas of Morocco or the remains of third century Roman cities in Tunisia, giving interesting and sometimes quite useful historical context in which to view today’s issues. Today, each country faces difference areas and obstacles for growth, but there’s at least one major common denominator across the region: the youth. The Arab world is the second youngest in the world. While this gives it a potentially bright future, the other side of that coin is chronic youth unemployment, which is probably the single biggest challenge facing Arab economies today. Thus, many questions and conversations related in one way or another around one question: how can governments replace the outdated social contracts of the 20th century with more competitive systems that harness this potential?

By David Mikhail (Wharton/Lauder Class of 2016, Arabic)