Cement and wheat in the Doha summit

Of course, the Doha summit neither tackled the increase in prices of cement and the parallel decrease in its production in the Arab world nor did it tackle the Arabs’ pressing need for wheat after their vast lands, including ones rich in water, have become unable to yield enough. The summit discussed crucial issues in the Arab world, which is going through “exceptional circumstances” and taking “dangerous turns.” The Syrian crisis topped the agenda, and it would have been useful had anyone posed a few questions: Who will reconstruct Syria? Will the cement produced by Arab factories be enough? How can we supply tons of wheat to feed hungry mouths in the light of dangerous political tension? From here emerges the importance of discussing the issues of cement and wheat in the Arab world. It might sound inappropriate to ask who would re-build the new Syria while killing and destruction is ongoing in the old Syria, or how Egyptians in the second republic would be able to secure the 250 million loaves of bread every day while its politicians are still fighting over the legitimacy of the prosecutor general. It is important for us to toughen up, deal with the future coldly, and form committees to tackle such questions.

Towards the end of last year, around 45 Syrians, who represent different opposition factions, met in Berlin. Some of them worked for the Syrian government, then defected. They met to set a plan known as “the following day in Syria” project under the auspices of two institutes, one German and another American. They put forth wonderful ideas that constituted a road map for Syria following the ouster of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and which included democratic transition, the reconstruction of the state, security, the constitution, and finally economic boom and reconstruction. A detailed copy of this study is available on the website of the United States Institute for Peace. Yet, they did not discuss the issue of cement of which Syria only produces six million tons and only God knows how many months it needs to re-operate its ruined factories. Egypt ranks first among Arab cement-producing countries with 48 million tons followed by Saudi with 44 million, but despite the expansion in the construction of cement factories in both countries the prices of cement are still increasing in each of them. This is the result of high demand on the construction of housing units in both. This demand is likely to rise even more with Saudi’s adoption of comprehensive real estate development systems, like mortgage and housing loans. The soaring prices and monopoly of housing land is what mainly hinders a breakthrough in the construction of houses.

Syria is a different case

But who will provide Syrians with cement if Saudis are prohibiting its export and Egyptians are in need of all their production of it? Who will fund the reconstruction of Syria? Syria is not like Libya, which had undergone a similar destruction yet had the money for reconstruction. Syria produces only 300,000 barrels of oil everyday. Some of this quantity is exported and Bashar al-Assad and his family get hold of the revenue. The scope of destruction in Syria is much more than that in Libya. Will Saudi and Turkish companies vie for investing in Syria? Or will the money Syrians smuggled abroad solve the problem? Before all this, there should be time for the reconstruction of state institutions, drafting a constitution, and holding elections before thinking of supplying Syrians with cement.

Wheat is another Arab communal problem. For example, Saudi will stop cultivating wheat by 2015 with nonrenewable subterranean water running out, even though it only needs three million tons of wheat and has the money to import it from Australia and Russia. The problem is in Egypt, which needs 19 million tons and only produces half this quantity. Egypt is also short on hard currency with its reserve dropping to 13.5 billion dollars, which would cover the country’s needs of imported products for only three months.

Theoretically, Arabs can find a solution in their fertile lands in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Algeria, but politics makes the kingdom prefer to look into wheat cultivation options in Russia, through private companies it owns, than resorts to Algeria, which is ruled by military commanders who are hard to deal with. After the revolution, Egypt started exploring the possibility of cultivating one million acres of wheat in Sudan, but this is a long-term plan that requires Arab support and domestic attention after politicians are done with their squabbling over the prosecutor general and are finished with their intrigues.

I tackled cement and wheat to demonstrate how closely related we are as Arabs. Borders do separate us and we have different custom duties. Some countries support the manufacture of cement, like Saudi, while others don’t like Egypt. Some countries have the money and expertise to cultivate wheat, like Saudi, while others have land, water, and labor, like Sudan. We are all affected by the economic changes that take place around us, especially when it comes to essential products like iron, cement, wheat, and fertilizers, which all have universal prices. This should encourage us to speed up economic unity and to work on lifting restrictions as leaders promise at the end of each summit. Economic prosperity and better living conditions are amongst the goals of the Arab people in the post-Arab Spring era.

Had we helped Egypt start with economy instead of politics, it wouldn’t have been hampered by one standoff following the other, absurd protests, and exchange of incriminations. Everyone is beating up and torturing everyone else, so that all the values for which Egyptians staged their revolution, on top of which is dignity, are collapsing. When you violate your adversary’s dignity you are in fact violating your own.

In Syria, the revolution is not over and incrimination and score settling have already started. The media is starting to be inspired by Egypt as far as the tools of division are concerned, so now there is a lot of talk about the necessity of stopping the “Brotherhood-ization” of the Syrian revolution. Let us wait till the revolution is victorious, then start dealing with the Brotherhood.

Is there anything that calls for optimism? Yes, when the issues of cement and wheat top the priorities of Arab politicians.



Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi

Last Update: Saturday, 30 March 2013 KSA 10:36 - GMT 07:36
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