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Monday, February 25, 2008

That which unites us is far more important than that which divides us
Posted by Jill | 6:11 AM
By "us", I'm referring to those of us living in the U.S. and those trying to make ends meet in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. After 9/11, it became popular (and still is in some circles) to tar all of the peoples of the Fertile Crescent and environs as terrorists. I hope that one of the first orders of business for the next president is going to be to try to heal relations with these people. Because they are getting as screwed over economically by the greed of their leaders as we are by ours:

Even as it enriches Arab rulers, the recent oil-price boom is helping to fuel an extraordinary rise in the cost of food and other basic goods that is squeezing this region’s middle class and setting off strikes, demonstrations and occasional riots from Morocco to the Persian Gulf.

Here in Jordan, the cost of maintaining fuel subsidies amid the surge in prices forced the government to remove almost all the subsidies this month, sending the price of some fuels up 76 percent overnight. In a devastating domino effect, the cost of basic foods like eggs, potatoes and cucumbers doubled or more.

In Saudi Arabia, where inflation had been virtually zero for a decade, it recently reached an official level of 6.5 percent, though unofficial estimates put it much higher. Public protests and boycotts have followed, and 19 prominent clerics posted an unusual statement on the Internet in December warning of a crisis that would cause “theft, cheating, armed robbery and resentment between rich and poor.”

The inflation has many causes, from rising global demand for commodities to the monetary constraints of currencies pegged to the weakening American dollar. But one cause is the skyrocketing price of oil itself, which has quadrupled since 2002. It is helping push many ordinary people toward poverty even as it stimulates a new surge of economic growth in the gulf.

“Now we have to choose: we either eat or stay warm. We can’t do both,” said Abdul Rahman Abdul Raheem, who works at a clothing shop in a mall in Amman and once dreamed of sending his children to private school. “We’re not really middle class anymore; we’re at the poverty level.”

I think some of the very same Americans who have spent the last seven years calling for the entire Middle East to be turned into a sheet of glass would be able to relate.

Just as declining economic conditions here have led to a rise in the kind of evangelical religions that vaguely promise some kind of bliss and prosperity in the afterlife, the decline of the middle class in countries in which Islam is the dominant religion leave the door open for similar radicals to take power, especially if those affected manage to topple the oil sheikhs. There's a huge opportunity for the U.S. here if we are only smart enough to take it.

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