Economist Has Convincing Theory on How Extreme Inequality Creates Extremist Violence

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Economist Has Convincing Theory on How Extreme Inequality Creates Extremist Violence

With Western-backed, oil-rich monarchies in Gulf holding so much of the wealth, Thomas Piketty says that Middle East region is the 'most unequal on the planet'

An image made available on the jihadist Web site Welayat Salahuddin shows fighters with the Islamic State after they  seized an Iraqi army checkpoint in the northern Iraqi province of Salahuddin. (Photo: Welayat Salahuddin/HO via AFP)

An image made available on the jihadist Web site Welayat Salahuddin shows fighters with the Islamic State after they  seized an Iraqi army checkpoint in the northern Iraqi province of Salahuddin. (Photo: Welayat Salahuddin/HO via AFP)

Influential French economist Thomas Piketty is raising important questions this week after positing a theory that the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS) can be attributed, at least in part, to extreme regional inequality in the Middle East fueled largely by oil wealth.

Piketty argues in a column published Le Monde last week and translated by the Washington Post on Monday that the concentration of wealth in the hands of just a few petro-monarchies has made the region the "most unequal on the planet."

As the Post's Jim Tankersley reports:

Piketty writes that the Middle East's political and social system has been made fragile by the high concentration of oil wealth into a few countries with relatively little population. If you look at the region between Egypt and Iran — which includes Syria — you find several oil monarchies controlling between 60 and 70 percent of wealth, while housing just a bit more than 10 percent of the 300 million people living in that area. (Piketty does not specify which countries he's talking about, but judging from a study he co-authored last year on Middle East inequality, it appears he means Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia, Bahrain and Oman. By his numbers, they accounted for 16 percent of the region's population in 2012 and almost 60 percent of its gross domestic product.)

In those states, Piketty says, the have-nots, including women and refugees, are often kept in a state of "semi-slavery." This, combined with a series of foreign interventions, have created what he described as a "powder keg" for terrorism.

The Post notes that "Piketty is particularly scathing when he blames the inequality of the region, and the persistence of oil monarchies that perpetuate it, on the West."

Indeed, the economist writes: "These are the regimes that are militarily and politically supported by Western powers, all too happy to get some crumbs to fund their [soccer] clubs or sell some weapons. No wonder our lessons in social justice and democracy find little welcome among Middle Eastern youth." 

He concludes that such terrorism that is "rooted in inequality...is best combated economically," as Tankersley writes, and thus stands in sharp opposition to the growing military response to ISIS.

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