Political revolution out, industrial revolution in

Forging a new future for the Middle East should be less about democracy slogans and more about recognizing the unrivaled benefits of building strong industries for export.

Crowd 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Crowd 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As a skilled metalworker, I learned how to know when a piece of carbide steel was nearing its breaking point. It is now something I can generally predict. Social tensions, however, are something else entirely. No amount of experience in Middle Eastern politics could have made the region’s eruptions in the last month foreseeable. The people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen have taken to the streets in an attempt to have more of a say about their own future. No one knows what the outcome will be, but it is certain that this particular neck of the woods is about to undergo some profound changes. Here in Israel we might have earned the right to treat ourselves to a bit of optimism – at least for now. We can hope that perhaps a new age is dawning for the Middle East, one that is concerned with development and production instead of stasis, destruction and the myriad ills of oil.
The toppling of longstanding Arab regimes will have repercussions both near and far. Europe now fears an influx of refugees. Unrest inevitably encourages flight, which in turn bears with it all the usual problems associated with dislocation and absorption - for both refugees and host countries.
There is, however, a solution, one that seems to have been largely ignored in all the commentary thus far. It can be expressed in one word:  industry. Industrialization is the only way to avoid a major exodus from the region In many areas of the Middle East, the presence of oil has until now sustained a false sense of well-being. The profits garnered eclipsed other ventures, such as establishing export industries, which could have brought many jobs to the area.
President Barack Obama and others have openly expressed the importance of creating jobs. Yet curiously, nobody has mentioned the need to create skills. Any serious program of industrialization obviously requires skills. Even in an automated factory, workers need to know how the machinery functions. Quality products result from good training, and skilled worker are also likely to have pride in whatever they undertake.
Thus, once the protest-dust settles, the international community “fund” should assist these countries in starting high-level technical education programs to train both workers and entrepreneurs.  Despite the hype attached to Israel being a ‘start-up’ nation, this country also needs to breathe new life into its moribund vocational training system. Continued attempts are made to introduce the dual system, the method of education that has brought success to many industrial countries including Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and South Korea. This system, in which industry and education work in tandem, combines classroom learning with on-site apprenticeships.
The Middle East could profit enormously from an industrial revolution. Aside from Turkey, which has made considerable progress in the past few decades, most of the region finds itself in production dire straits. In 2010, exports from the five countries now in upheaval (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen) totaled $108 billion - less than the $116 billion than that of the Czech Republic the same year.
To understand just how effectively industry can boost an economy, consider the vanquished nations of World War II; Germany and Japan. Their economies were shattered by the war, and the Allied victory meant that both nations underwent a complete demilitarization. But despite the patent humiliation Involved, the lack of army and conscription meant that they were able to focus their energies on reviving the financial stability through industry. In just six decades, the results have been unparalleled. Last year, Germany alone was the world’s third largest exporter (topping the US and being beaten only by the European Union and China). Almost as impressive, Japan was ranked the fifth biggest export country. 
The much-documented success of the Asian Tigers in the second half of the last century also illustrates this point. Places such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore found industry to be an effective way to increase their standard of living. One common denominator was a dedicated and skilled workforce.
Industry can usher in a new era of peace and prosperity - and the Middle East should be no exception. The US, the EU, and others that have a vested interest in promoting stability in this region should come to the realization that industry-building will be the soundest investment for the future.
The author, who served as a member of Israel’s Knesset during the term of former prime minister Menachem Begin, is founder and honorary chairman of ISCAR, Ltd., a precision carbide metal cutting tools company that ranks second in the world in its field.