“The new Arab World”

Reporting the economics of revolutions

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“There is no going back,” began the cover story for Executive’s March 2011 issue. “Recent months have severed the future from past precedent and brought about a fundamental shift in the Arab paradigm.”

When we published those words, uprisings had just begun to sweep country after country across the Arab World. In response, global media outlets rushed in to broadcast “the story” to the masses around the planet – but that was never our game. From our seventh floor office near Beirut’s Adlieh roundabout, we produced coverage for the discerning reader. Our lens on the upheaval was economic. Our analysis followed the money and within our niche we were unrivaled.

For the March 2011 magazine, issue #140, we interviewed an economist at the University of Tunis El Manar, who told us that Tunisian youth – who were again marching in the streets after having driven President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile just a month and a half before – would have to wait years for the inequities they rose up against to be righted.

Libya was then newly divided between the country’s east, which a rag-tag rebel movement had newly liberated, and a west where Colonel Muammar Qaddafi still held sway. Global oil prices had surged past $100 per barrel as a result and our editorial team brought to the fore how the Libyan government’s fortune – tallying in the hundreds of billions of dollars and stashed in investments in more than 130 countries around the world – would be up for grabs if Qaddafi’s 42-year-reign were brought down.

As for Egypt, we reported on how regional banks were shrugging off the potential for short-term loan defaults post-revolution in anticipation of the massive financing needs the new government would have, while Egyptians – who our team had been with in Tahrir Square when millions demonstrated to end the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak – were debating the future of their country and feverishly building new political parties to elect into the parliament.

In Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Oman, the people had taken to the streets and squares of cities and towns, demanding just governance and a new social contract. Yet, even as the Arab world seemed alight from end-to-end when Executive hit Lebanese newsstands March 1, just a two-and-a-half hour drive away in Damascus, calm prevailed. Syria was different. The regime’s power seemed absolute. An uprising there was impossible. Until it happened.

A Damascene shopkeeper – speaking to our reporter who went in the next month to covertly cover the unrest – made it a point to remind us that Syria was still different.

“They will kill millions to hold onto power. Millions,” he said. “This is not Egypt.”

We documented how the rural areas in Syria that first rose up were the same ones that had been the worst affected by the government’s repeal of farm subsidies, or where small-scale artisans had been driven out of business en masse by trade liberalization with Turkey. As protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad spread across the country we followed how the economy retreated, unemployment surged and the Syrian Central Bank began burning through its foreign currency reserves to prop up the sinking Syrian pound.

[pullquote]Our lens on the upheaval was economic. Our analysis followed the money and within our niche we were unrivaled[/pullquote]

The more viciously and violently the regime tried to quash the peaceful protest movement, the bigger the demonstrations became. Within months media around the world began to speculate about the imminent collapse of the regime. But it withstood, and as the opposition tired of being butchered in the streets, at Executive we traced the rising price of weapons on Lebanon’s black market, fueled by groups in Syria who were rallying to arms.

In contrast to Libya – where western countries quickly secured a United Nations Security Council resolution for a “no-fly zone” and then bombed Qaddafi’s ground forces to make way for a rebel advance – the West “has generally limited its stance to the unrest in Syria with repeated calls for Assad to reform or face losing his legitimacy,” one of our comment writers noted in Executive’s August 2011 issue. “We don’t want to go for the option of an armed struggle against the regime,” the same writer quoted a Syrian activist as saying in our October 2011 issue, “but if the international community does not step in, we are afraid that it will lead to civil war.”

Five years later I look back at the words we published in March 2011, and they now echo hauntingly: “What was the status quo is now dead, trampled beneath the feet of millions marching through the streets. And while it is yet far from certain that freedom and democracy await them at the end of this road, what is assured is that where they are going is radically different from the place they left. Welcome to the new Arab World.”

Spencer Osberg was editor of Executive from 2009 to 2013