The Gulf's economic rise should prompt its economists to meet the moment

GCC economists are underrepresented in academic research, but there are ways to fix that

GCC states have experienced unprecedented economic success in recent years. Silvia Razgova / The National
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The global debate on what policies are most supportive of economic growth is a fierce and persistently unresolved one. Economists have the opportunity to make a valuable contribution to the public discourse, yet too often many of them in the Middle East, including in the Gulf, tend to be silent bystanders. For the GCC countries to fulfil their economic potential, their homegrown scholars need to play a more decisive role in their respective journeys.

Throughout history, countries experiencing a period of economic growth produce scholars famed for analysing and sharing that experience globally. The UK’s 18th-century industrialisation inspired the Scottish economist Adam Smith, followed by the English economist Alfred Marshall, who witnessed the 19th-century British-led explosion in global trade. The US’s economic success in the 20th century yielded luminaries such as Robert Solow and Merton Miller, while Abhijit Banerjee and Jagdish Bhagwati are both closely associated with India’s economic rise.

Notably, societies benefit from having their homegrown scholars produce high-quality analysis in real time. Periods of accelerated growth are frequently associated with policy innovation, meaning that policymakers are experimenting with new development paradigms rather than simply adhering to a linear recipe. Local minds support the process of refining these policies by using their expertise, especially if they have sound knowledge of the history of economic growth elsewhere in the world.

This process also confers diplomatic benefits as other countries look to gain from the successful experience of the growing one. The rapid improvement in living standards experienced by countries such as Japan and South Korea made them models for others to emulate, and their local economists were instrumental in sharing their ideas with the rest of the world, helping their nations acquire soft power.

The Gulf countries have yet to benefit fully from this phenomenon. The growth that the six countries have experienced since the 1970s is remarkable, resulting in some of the world’s highest living standards. However, their economists’ contribution to the global discourse on the drivers of economic growth has so far been inadequate, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Many of these scholars, including those advising or working inside the government, have either shown little motivation to write about their countries’ economic stories, or struggled to provide rigorous analysis. Some of this is down to inadequate academic training and lack of knowledge.

The top 5 academic journals in economics have occasional papers on the Gulf economy, but they are almost always written by western scholars

Quantitative evidence takes the form of the modest number of academic papers these economists produce, the low rank of the journals they publish in, and the limited number of citations their papers accrue. Moreover, foreign, externally based economists writing about the Gulf economies produce a higher volume of research than do the homegrown economists, and they publish it in more well-known journals while gaining higher citations.

For example, the top five academic journals in economics, including the flagship American Economic Review, have occasional papers on issues relating to the Gulf economy, but they are almost always written by western scholars. Naturally, there are exceptions; I personally know a number of good Gulf economists who make sound contributions. However, the general trends cannot be denied.

This deficiency represents a real foregone opportunity for the Gulf countries: domestically, the process of formulating and improving economic policies is impaired, while globally, they squander the chance to acquire soft power by exporting their intellectual resources. This can be seen in the widespread belief that the Gulf countries’ economic success is exclusively caused by their resource wealth, despite the existence of many resource-rich nations that have failed to translate their natural resources into high living standards.

Accordingly, it is important for their societies to understand the causes of this stunted contribution to the global public discourse.

Underlying the aforementioned weak training and sometimes professional indifference is a distorted career path for proficient homegrown economists. The prevailing culture is one where aspiring scholars dream of getting appointed to senior government positions, whereupon some will intellectually ossify, replacing the ability to write an insightful 30-page academic paper that advances human knowledge with the ability to write a two-page non-technical brief that is designed to support policy decisions.

The lack of motivation could be due in part to the fact that they get generous remuneration as civil servants; I have hardly heard of American university professors going to the public sector for financial gain. Meanwhile, people confer social status upon those who reach government’s upper echelons, while being a public intellectual is rarely considered prestigious. This reflects a latent under-appreciation of intellectual endeavours that also breeds a reluctance among scholars to provide dispassionate analysis of their home economies.

Some Gulf economists would probably retort that the international public sphere has a racial bias, whereby their meritorious intellectual contributions are unjustly marginalised because they are penned by people who are either not from the West or lack the credentials that western academics are armed with. There is probably some truth to this, but it is little more than a partial explanation, and it would be unwise to use it as an excuse to switch one’s efforts from producing good-quality scientific contributions to loudly complaining about discrimination and demanding some sort of intellectual affirmative action.

Regardless of the Gulf economies’ ultimate success, their growth experience merits expositional academic research conducted by homegrown scholars operating on the front line. The region’s economists must challenge themselves to do more than they currently are, even if many of their fellow citizens may not show enough appreciation, or of it means missing out on a top government job.

Published: May 01, 2024, 4:00 PM