Free Markets, Free Muslims

Can a New Middle Class Make a New Middle East?

It was not long ago that word of "the Dubai miracle" was on everyone's lips. Driven by little more than a grand idea of itself, this sparsely populated, sun-baked strip on the Persian Gulf had become a gleaming multiethnic metropolis overnight. Dubai was bursting with financial assets, boasting the world's most luxurious hotels, and attracting more than six million visitors every year -- no small feat for an emirate of a mere 100,000 citizens. But in the last year, the speculative bubble that had driven much of Dubai's growth popped: cranes fell still, and ambitious projects lay languishing on the drawing board. Behind the scenes, it took tens of billions of dollars in financial guarantees from Abu Dhabi to keep the whole enterprise afloat.

Vali Nasr's new book, Forces of Fortune, was written largely in the exuberant phase of Dubai's story, but it is being published in a more sober time. It reflects some of the old enthusiasm for the notion that "the Dubai model" -- a multiethnic, capitalist society insulated from violence and ideology -- could save the Middle East from a downward spiral of intolerance and political extremism. Nasr's overall conclusion -- that the triumph of free markets in the Middle East "will pave the way to the decisive defeat of extremism and to social liberalization" -- is sympathetic to the Dubai experience. "If that battle is won by private-sector business leaders and the rising middle class tied to them," Nasr argues, "then progress with political rights will follow."

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