Missing Links

Arabs in Foreign Lands

What the success of Arab Americans tells us about Europe, the Middle East, and the power of culture.

People of Arab descent living in the United States are doing far better than the average American. That is the surprising conclusion drawn from data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000 and released last March. The census found that U.S. residents who report having Arab ancestors are better educated and wealthier than average Americans.

Whereas 24 percent of Americans hold college degrees, 41 percent of Arab Americans are college graduates. The median income for an Arab family living in the United States is $52,300 -- 4.6 percent higher than other American families -- and more than half of all Arab Americans own their home. Forty-two percent of people of Arab descent in the United States work as managers or professionals, while the same is true for only 34 percent of the general U.S. population. For many, this success has come on quickly: Although about 50 percent of Arab Americans were born in the United States, nearly half of those born abroad did not arrive until the 1990s.

That immigrants do better than their compatriots back home is of course no surprise. What is far less common is for immigrants to perform that much better than the average population of their adopted home. This fact should prompt important debates that transcend how Arab immigrants are faring in the United States.

Consider, for example, the popular notion that cultural factors loom large behind the Middle East's appalling poverty. Cultural explanations for why some succeed when others fail have a long history. In 1904, German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that the "Protestant ethic" was more compatible with capitalism than religions such as Confucianism and Taoism. Of course, the Asian economic miracle forced a revision of these assumptions. The same thing happened to "Asian values," the idea that cultural factors explained the region's phenomenal rates of economic growth. The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s gave that cultural theory an even shorter shelf life.

The Middle East's poor economic and social performance today has also prompted explanations of some malignancy in the prevailing culture. The respected Harvard University historian David S. Landes wrote in his 1998 book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, that the ill that plagues these countries "lies with the culture, which (1) does not generate an informed and capable work force; (2) continues to mistrust or reject new techniques and ideas that come from the enemy West (Christendom) and (3) does not respect such knowledge as members do manage to achieve."

Such views are common, given the inexcusably poor performance of Arab nations. In the last two decades, no region besides sub-Saharan Africa has seen income per person grow as slowly as in the Middle East. At the current rate, it will take the average Arab 140 years to double his or her income. Asians, Europeans, and North Americans are expected to double their incomes in the next 10 years. The total economic output -- including oil -- of all Arab countries is less than that of Spain, the Middle East's unemployment rates are the highest in the developing world, and its literacy rates rank near the bottom.

But if cultural impediments are behind the Arab world's disappointing performance, what explains Arab Americans' incredible success? The answer, of course, is opportunities and institutions. Arabs in the United States have access to ample opportunities to prosper and can rely on powerful institutions to protect their civil, political, and economic rights to do so. Indeed, the census data show that Arab ancestry mixed with markets and meritocracy creates a potent fuel for success.

Of course, many will explain the success of Arab Americans by pointing out that people who emigrate tend to be younger, more motivated, ambitious, and entrepreneurial. The Arab immigrants who are doing so well in the United States, according to this view, would have made it anywhere.

Sadly, that isn't true, either. Otherwise, how does one explain why Arab immigrants in Europe are worse off than those in the United States? Why are leaders of Arab communities in France warning that social and racial tensions are in danger of creating a "social and political atom bomb"? Sure, France may be an extreme case, but the situation of Arabs in the rest of Europe is hardly better. In general, Muslims living in Europe -- of which Arabs constitute a significant proportion -- are poorer, less educated, and in worse health than the rest of the population. In the Netherlands, the unemployment rate for ethnic Moroccans is 22 percent, roughly four times the rate for the country as a whole. In Britain, the Muslim population has the highest unemployment rate of all religious groups. The failure of Arabs in Europe is particularly worrisome given that 10 of the states or entities along Europe's eastern and southern borders are home to nearly 250 million Muslims -- most of them Arabs -- with a birthrate more than double that of Europeans.

This census data should prompt soul-searching in many quarters. Cultural determinists may want to revise their theories of Arab backwardness. Arab leaders should be ashamed when they see their emigrants prospering in the United States while their own people are miserable. And Europe should wake up to the possibility that it may have less of an "Arab problem" than a "European problem." Then again, maybe the cultural determinists have an explanation for why Europeans are so predisposed against Arab success.

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