Coping with the Legacy of Arab Socialism

Countries of the Arab Spring suffer from many economic, social, and political ills. At their center lies the unfortunate legacy of Arab Socialism, which established itself in the region during the 1950s and 1960s. One of its features, besides the ideology of Pan-Arabism and international ‘non-alignment,’ was an emphasis on government ownership and industrial planning. Far from generating prosperity and economic growth, these policies resulted in large, vastly inefficient government-operated sectors in several Arab economies. My new Cato Policy Analysis provides a sense of the magnitude of the problem and of its evolution over time:

In Egypt, for example, the share of government investment fell from around 85 percent in the late 1990s to below 40 percent in 2012. Over the same period of time, the share of government investment in Algeria doubled, from around 30 percent to above 60 percent. Throughout much of the same period, the average for lower-middle-income countries hovered under 30 percent.

Some Arab governments, most prominently Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, attempted to put in place large-scale privatization programs. However, these were perceived (and rightly so!) as attempts by the political elites and their cronies to simply seize publicly owned assets, without much regard for the future restructuring of the companies and their exposure to competition. My paper reviews the experience of privatization in other countries and tries to provide some practical lessons to policymakers in countries such as Egypt or Algeria.

First and foremost, privatization needs to be perceived as fair and transparent. Bidding should be competitive and open to a large spectrum of potential bidders, domestic and foreign. Second, private ownership of the financial sector is a requisite for successful privatization and restructuring of the rest of the economy–otherwise Arab countries risk creating a dangerous nexus of cronyism through which the state-owned banks and financial institutions would provide funding to newly privatized companies. Third, in order to avoid the danger of simply replacing government-run monopolies with privately-run ones, privatization should be far-reaching and accompanied by broad economic liberalization and opening up both to trade and investment.

Privatization is not very high on the agenda of Arab policymakers or foreign experts, and is typically eclipsed by the more immediate political concerns about the region. It is not, however, an issue that can be simply ignored.

It is a mistake to think that economic reforms can wait until Middle Eastern countries address their internal political and economic problems. There are not many examples of countries that have transitioned successfully to a representative constitutional government while maintaining economic rules that deny opportunity to large segments of the population. State ownership, accompanied by regulations that favor existing state-owned incumbents, are a critical part of the problem facing countries in the MENA region, most notably Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Syria, and Yemen