David Lidington MP, Shadow Foreign Minister, was our guest at a Power Lunch in Westminster this week. With oil now more than $130 a barrel, and half the world's cranes busy building new hotels and apartments in Dubai, it was no surprise that much of the discussion focused on the Middle East. Lidington, of course, is expert on the subject, and had recently come back from a top-level visit to the region.
The discussion was off the record, so I can't go into the details of who said what, but it does seem that the main concerns in the region have changed, from primarily strategic (notably issues around Israel and America's interests) to economic. Middle-Eastern countries see themselves as developing rapidly – on a par with China as the future economic powerhouse of the world. And yet, outside a few countries, the region's political structures have not developed fast enough to give this new, market economy the framework to really grow. The Gulf region imports 90% of its food; water is in short supply for agriculture as for much else; and Egypt has had bread riots. But when you try to fix the price of bread as Egypt does – so you can make more money selling it for animal fodder than human food – what would any economist really expect?
And economic development itself will pile up the political pressure. Economic development has allowed education to expand, and in particular more women are now getting an education. That will stoke up rising expectations in the region's predominantly young population. We can't expect that overnight there will be American-style constitutions, free elections and bright new democrats bursting into the majority. But I would say the UK needs to do more to help political reform by encouraging the understanding and discussion of democratic culture and institutions, and in particular the rule of law. Britain is, of course, the home of those principles. But since our nanny state is tearing them up at home these days, one cannot be optimistic that we will make much of a job of exporting them abroad.