The Rise (and Fall?) of Consumer Society In the Middle East

consumer-society-middle-east-oil-relli-shechterI speak to historian Relli Shechter about smoking in Egypt, consumerism and why the Middle East still has a long way to go before it embraces sustainability

When we think of consumerism and the consumer society, the Middle East is not the first thing to come to mind. Wall St, Las Vegas, London, China – maybe. The Middle East? Not so much. Even so, over the last half a century the region has been transformed into a consumer society. It may not be at the scale witnessed in the Western world but nonetheless it has happened. Relli Shechter, a lecturer from Ben-Gurion University, has been studying this transition to consumerism in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia for some time now. I caught up with him to talk about the influence of the oil boom of the 70s and 80s and whether the Arab world is ready to explore a more sustainable path.

Why does consumerism interest you and why did you decide to the explore the topic in the Middle East- a region not traditionally associated with consumerism (although the Gulf nations are giving the world a run for its money!)?

Well for my Phd I want to Harvard in the US and whilst I was there I noticed a huge difference in the US consumer world compared to the Middle East and even Israel. You’d go to any supermarket and there would be the choice of 15 cheeses or 15 types of bread and that really caught my attention. The reason I chose to focus on the example of tobacco later on was a bit of a surprise.

I went to Egypt to look at the advertising business and I quickly found out that it was a highly politicised sector because there are links to government funding. So I was looking for an alternative and I stumbled across the cigarette. It was the perfect example as it cut across various social classes and so it was a great example of the way that consumerism entered into Egyptian society.

You also explore the same issue in Saudi Arabia and the impact the oil boom had on the kind of consumer society that emerged across the Middle East? But are they the same?

I realise that there are great difference between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and I am not trying to level them but there are some distinct structural similarities. An age of mass consumption triggers issues and questions and opportunities and these play out differently in these different contexts… There are lots of difference between them. Although the oil affected Saudi Arabia more directly (think concrete villas, foreign maids, drivers and mega-malls), it did have a real impact on countries such as Egypt.

The oil boom is where it all started. Of course, it looks different now as we have moved on since then but socio-cultural perceptions of consumption and what it all means to be a consumer- such notions, especially on the mass level – I would argue developed during the oil boom period. Egyptian peasants going to work in Saudi Arabia and Iraq later on, came back with consumer goods, new aspirations, new ideas about how they want to build their homes and what they need to have a family. These were developed during the oil boom which was a linchpin of the consumer society. This commercialisation expressed itself in everything from cheap housing, the suburbanisation of the village to the commercialisation of religious holidays such as Ramadan.

You go on to argue that this consumer boom led to growing inequality – and so some nations made an authoritarian trade off to keep their societies stable. In Gulf nations that came in the form of political docility in exchange for cheap goods and fuel. Do you think these countries would sacrifice things like fuel subsidies to become more sustainable if it put political stability at stake?

Probably not under the contemporary atmosphere. Iran is doing something that is quite radical in that sense as it has been cutting its fuel subsidies. It’s quite remarkable what they have been able to achieve – including the demographic shift after the Iran-Iraq war – I don’t think Saudi Arabia would be able to engineer such shifts. I mean right now, Saudi Arabia has high oil prices so that it can afford the subsidies. What they will do when the oil isn’t running so freely remains to be seen. The Saudi Contract, from what I’ve read, would be difficult to do away with the state provisioning they are currently providing to citizens.

Another tension that emerged with the rise of the consumer society in MENA was that economic growth came without significant economic development? Is that unique to the region?

I don’t think it’s unique to the Middle East as you see it a lot in the developing world. There were those countries who were able to capitalize on industrialisation and those, who for a variety of reasons, were unable to. The Middle East hasn’t made the now classical transition from agriculture to what is called import-substitute industrialisation which is exemplified by countries such as Taiwan or Japan. A combination of economic and political factors were the behind this. A colonial legacy never helps and local regimes, as authoritarian as they were did not push their populations as hard as other regimes such as China did. Oil also hindered progress.

The real question now is what is the alternative. Because right now, we see that all the major Middle Eastern economies are linked to oil either directly or indirectly and that is problematic.

It’s true that we need the Middle East to be more sustainable but we can’t ignore the issue of development. Can we really be asking the poor in the region to give up what little they have so that we as a whole can be more sustainable?

I think you have to change the perceptions of people about what is proper and what isn’t. Let’s take transportation, what is considered proper is different everywhere and that doesn’t have to consist of everybody having their own car. It’s the same with foodstuff. We have to move away from the idea that there is a fixed, linear idea of what is considered progress in terms of consumption of goods. And we have to look for what will keep people satisfied and what is also considered in terms of supporting a sustainable economy and environment. It’s about balance and pushing for more equality in those countries so that we can divert some of the resources to help them move towards sustainable growth.

You have spoken about the influence a rise in consumerism has on everything from the way we build our homes, our aspirations- to even the way we practice our faith. Is the link between Islam and consumerism unique in the Middle East ?

Again, it is not structurally unique, I see the same thing happening with Judaism in Israel. It’s the same with Christianity in the US. Perhaps the major difference is that Islam was in many ways that only alternative way to express legitimate opposition to authoritarian regimes, to social inequality and even gender inequality. So it became a major venue where opposition was translated and so we can find different approaches to Islamism across the Middle East. Despite how it is sometimes portrayed, Islam and the economy are not mutually exclusive.

We can’t have this conversation about the Middle East’s economy and the future without talking about the Arab Spring. Have the uprising across MENA changed anything in terms of embracing sustainability?

The economy played a major role in the Arab Spring – people felt deprived economically and also that they couldn’t express themselves politically. The economy also isn’t just about stocks and jobs, it’s about being able to translate that money and growth into a certain quality of life. It’s the revolution of many and it could still go a number of ways as we are watching its evolution before us.

So what are the biggest barriers stopping the Middle East from embracing a more sustainable path?

Politically, as much as we think of democracy as the preferable state system, it has its own problems. It means a lot of compromise, social cohesion and lots of bargaining especially when resources are limited. My feeling is that many in the Middle East associate democracy with a better socio-economic life which is not necessarily what it going to happen immediately. I am sure in the long-run democracy will improve the life of most citizens, but it will take time and patience and my feeling is that that is last thing people over there have right now. And rightly so, for generations people have been living under dictatorships – not always unpopular and sometimes with lots of grassroots support – but that hasn’t been the case in the last years of Mubarak’s regime.

It will take time for people to see what it possible, what are the benefits and costs of taking certain actions and what are the downsides. So that is one barrier.

Another issue is that whilst environmental concern is growing in Europe and the US, that is not really happing in the Middle East. It is so unfortunate that these issues have become associated with affluent societies and so there is a temptation to say that we allow development to reach a certain level or quality of life and then we realise it’s perhaps too much and we start to deal with it. That isn’t a mistake we can afford to be making over and over.

I think it safe to say that we (and our readers!) see the importance of dealing with climate change and our emissions in the Middle East. However, you could argue that as the region actually only contributes 1% of global emissions we can’t make a big difference either way. What would you say to that?

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a second. Let’s say that the Middle East is completely irrelevant in the global context and that it doesn’t really matter what they do. The life of people in Cairo and the big cities of the Middle East (and the Middle East is made up mainly of cities these days) would be improved if we did take action. There would be less sound pollution, better food, less time spent on the roads. In fact you could argue that we need to change two things- the way that we live and also the way that we perceive things like the good life. Being able to work less and spend more time doing things you like…

I don’t know if it will take longer in the Middle East- perhaps so because people don’t immediately associate environmentalism with a better way of life. With the current prevalence of war and hunger and unemployment, environmentalism seems (and only seems) less relevant or important than other issues but we have to show that they are in fact closely connected.

: Top image via Shahram Sherif/Flickr.

:: Originally published at GreenProphet.org – the leading news site on environmental issues in the Middle East.

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