Middle East News: Why is Economics Taboo?

By Paul Cochrane

What do recent protests in Iran and the uprisings of the Arab Spring have in common? They were both sparked by economic tension. In Iran, rapid price increases on some food items recently set off protests, while the 2011 Arab Spring protests began with a Tunisian street vendor setting himself on fire to protest economic hardship.

"It does eventually have a political impact,” said Professor Amr Adly, from the American University of Cairo. “If enough people can’t tap into sources of income creation and wealth, and distribution, then you end up eventually with economic backwardness, and lower standards of living that can translate into what happened in 2011, and into political action."

Conflict reporting from the Middle East often focuses on ethnic, religious, or political divides but rarely investigates links between economy and conflict. If economics is often a critical driver of war in the region, why is the issue such a media taboo?

1. It's culturally sensitive

"I think I the last ten years we've found that it's easier to talk about politics than it is about business,” said Nicholas Noe, Co-founder of MideastWire. “It's much easier to talk about long-standing political arguments, debates, new formations etc. than it is to talk about the perhaps more sensitive issue of money, of cash, of influence, of how politics and economics are connected - this is a very sensitive subject."

2. It's politically sensitive

"It feels much harder to talk about these subjects than it does for example talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict, or religious issues - Sunni/Shia - whatever it may be," said Mr Noe.

"This is something that is tough for everyone to talk about, not least the big powerful Western actors, who - when you turn over the rock - it turns out that there's not just local corrupt practices but they are often times, let's say, facilitated by or even depended on international financial mechanisms, specifically Western banks and governments."

3. It's dangerous

Globally, 262 media workers were imprisoned in 2017, with Turkey and Egypt two of the top jailers.

"I think you can view this as an indictment of the countries that are the leading jailers of journalists,” said Joel Simon, from the Committee to Protect Journalists. “But, you can also view it as an indictment of the entire international system, that is supposed to isolate systematic violators of this critical global norm, and ensure that there's a consequence."

"There are people in the region that are doing great work on this - and very courageously so,” said Mr Noe. "We cannot over estimate benefits of free media in general, that is what is required for a healthy public debate - or a public debate to start with,” said Professor Adly. “Many economic issues are too great to be dealt with by economists, as have repercussions, and inherently political issues, so need a public debate, and that requires a free media."

Washington D.C., USA  |  Christchurch, New Zealand |

| +1 202 780 0600