Commentary Magazine

Land and Poverty in the Middle East, by Doreen Warriner

The Arab Economy
Land and Poverty in the Middle East
by Doreen Warriner
London, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1948. 148 pp. 7/6.


“Near starvation, pestilence, high death rates, soil erosion, economic exploitation—this is the pattern of life for the mass of the rural population in the Middle East. It is a poverty which has no parallel in Europe, since even clean water is a luxury. Money incomes are low—5 to 7 pounds per head per year—but money comparisons alone do not convey the filth and disease, the mud-huts shared with animals, the dried dung fuel. There is no standard of living in the European sense—mere existence is accepted as a standard.”

A description of the Middle East in these stark terms has long been lacking in the compendious literature produced under semi-official British auspices. Not that the facts were unknown, but they commonly appear as “background” to the comings and goings on the political scene. The war made a change in this approach because the new nationalist movements began to reflect middle-class discontent with conditions vaguely associated with foreign control. At the same time sheer necessity compelled the Allies to “plan” at least the food supplies of the region, as when they forced the Egyptian cotton-growers to turn over part of their profitable plantations to the less remunerative but more useful production of grain. Miss Warriner herself worked in the Middle East Supply Centre, where her previously acquired knowledge of agrarian problems in Eastern Europe helped her to understand the urgent necessity of a new deal for the Middle Eastern farmer. The result is an authoritative survey of the region’s farming problems, coupled with some shrewd and incisive criticism of the policies pursued by the British and French mandatory authorities during the inter-war period: policies which, it is clear, have on the whole tended to make matters worse for the cultivator and to concentrate even more power in the hands of the landlords.

Since it is that class which stands in the way of technical progress, the conclusion is evident. The book indeed culminates in the statement that without a reform of land tenure—particularly in Egypt, Syria and Iraq—there can be no real advance. At the same time it warns that the Middle East is not, and never will be, a region favorable to grain-growing, and that irrigation requires an investment of capital far beyond the capacities of the countries concerned. It is this fact above all which makes some form of foreign economic control inevitable, unless the oil royalties are utilized to pay for the larger part of the investment—which in turn demands a radical change in the social composition of the ruling groups. Thus at every step seemingly technical problems—soil erosion, overpopulation, rural indebtedness, lack of equipment, etc.—turn out to involve social changes which the Western powers have hitherto hindered rather than helped. Whether it is a question of providing a land outlet for Egypt’s surplus population—Miss Warriner would like to settle two million Egyptian peasants in Iraq—or of preventing absentee landowners in Syria and Iraq from acquiring a stranglehold over the peasants under the guise of helping them pay for irrigation of their lands, the upshot of her investigation is always the same: the present system of land tenure must be radically changed and the grip of the landlords broken. The Lebanon and Palestine are partial exceptions: the former because small peasant proprietorship is widespread, the latter because of the relative wealth in capital equipment brought about by Jewish immigration.

There are flaws in her analysis of the Palestine situation, but they are not of the sort commonly associated with the official and unofficial apologists of the mandatory regime.



Where Zionists will quarrel with Miss Warriner is in her ambivalent attitude towards the problem of capital investment for non-economic purposes. It is of course true and important that the Jordan Valley scheme is uneconomic in the sense that it cannot yield dividends to the investors; it is equally true, and more important, that it depends on political decisions and necessitates some degree of Arab cooperation. But to say that the same amount of money “if expended on irrigation in other Middle East territories . . . would make far larger areas productive” is to forget that these larger areas are in their present state precisely because their exploitation is governed exclusively by cost calculations, and that the Zionist experiment has flourished in proportion as it has been inspired by long-range planning.

This is sometimes recognized by the author, but her friendly references to the agricultural work so far accomplished in Palestine are qualified by what appears an excessive scepticism as to its scope. There is a real problem involved in the existence of two parallel markets, two communities with totally different standards of living, two ways of life; but while Zionist writers have undoubtedly exaggerated the beneficial effect of Jewish settlement on the Arab village, Miss Warriner seems unduly inclined to assume that costs in the Jewish sector will always remain so high as to isolate the Jewish settlements from their Arab neighbors.

It also seems unfair to describe the life of the communal farms as “an echo of Weimar Germany,” and to dismiss as “very unreal” a “socialism so heavily subsidized, which does not contribute directly to raise the level of surrounding poverty.” Actually the communal settlements have in some respects proved the most economic form of farming so far undertaken by Jews. Their impact on the Arab economy must necessarily be long-range. Miss Warriner is on safer ground when she shows that the problem of rural overpopulation in the Arab sector must remain insoluble without some degree of industrialization even if the Jordan Valley scheme is put into effect.

This is an important and well-documented book whose lesson the political experts dealing with the Middle East will be wise to absorb—if there is still time.



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