January 29, 2011


The crescent and the company: A scholar asks some profound questions about why the Middle East fell behind the West (Schumpeter, Jan 27th 2011, The Economist)

In “The Long Divergence” Mr Kuran advances a more plausible reason. The Middle East fell behind the West because it failed to produce commercial institutions—most notably joint-stock companies—that were capable of mobilising large quantities of productive resources and enduring over time.

Europeans inherited the idea of the corporation from Roman law. Using it as a base, they also experimented with ever more complicated partnerships. By 1470 the house of the Medicis had a permanent staff of 57 spread across eight European cities. The Islamic world failed to produce similar innovations. Under the prevailing “law of partnerships”, businesses could be dissolved at the whim of a single partner. The combination of generous inheritance laws and the practice of polygamy meant that wealth was dispersed among numerous claimants.

None of this mattered when business was simple. But the West’s advantage grew as it became more complicated. Whereas business institutions in the Islamic world remained atomised, the West developed ever more resilient corporations—limited liability became widely available in the mid-19th century—as well as a penumbra of technologies such as double-entry book-keeping and stockmarkets.

How much does this matter for modern business? From the late 19th century onwards Middle Eastern politicians borrowed Western institutions in order to boost economic growth. In the 1920s Ataturk introduced a thoroughly secular legal system in Turkey. Today the Islamic world boasts muscular companies and hectic stockmarkets (the market capitalisation of the region’s three biggest countries, Turkey, Egypt and Iran, doubled between 2003 and 2008). Dubai is laying out a red carpet for the world’s companies. Turkey is growing much faster than Greece.

Yet the “long divergence” continues to shape the region’s business climate. Most obviously, the Middle East has a lot of catching up to do. Income per head is still only 28% of the European and American average. More than half the region’s firms say limited access to electricity, telecoms and transport is a problem for business. The figure in Europe is less than a quarter.

There are more subtle echoes. Business across the region remains intertwined with the state while the wider commercial society is weak. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor suggests that rates of entrepreneurship are particularly low in the Middle East and north Africa. Transparency International’s corruption-perceptions index suggests that corruption is rife: in 2010, on a scale from one (the worst) to ten, Western Europe’s five most populous countries received an average score of 6.5, whereas the three most populous countries in the Middle East averaged 3.2 (Turkey scored 4.4, Egypt 3.1 and Iran 2.2).

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 29, 2011 6:03 AM
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