We are all aware of Iran's economic problems: widespread unemployment, chronic inflation, stagnant wages, a private sector choked by the state, a weak regulatory environment unfavorable to foreign investment, government officials who treat state contracts like a first come-first serve bazaar.
Here in Dubai, where I write this post from, a dynamic entrepenuership conference just ended. Leading entrepeneuers from America and the West shared insights with their Arab counterparts. It was the sort of event that made one hopeful about the future of the Arab and Muslim world, given the high quality of young entrepeneuers emerging. But there were few, if any, Iranians present.
For those who care deeply about Iran, attending high-profile international and regional economic conferences can be depressing. I attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) regional Dead Sea conference in Jordan. The WEF attracts global private sector elites to discuss regional and global trends in public panels, and more importantly, to incubate business partnerships in private meetings. There was not a single Iranian businessman in attendance, nor a single Iranian official making the case for Iran as an investment destination. Even Libya made their case, with the smiling Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader's son.
In the more global Davos confab, a few months earlier, the story was largely the same. Iran's official representation consisted of foreign minister Kamal Kharazzi, who was busy fighting battles with US Senators over nukes and Massoumeh Ebtekar, the former hostage-taker spokesperson known as "Mary", who was busy lecturing the Davos crowd with the tired cultural relativist argument of "Islamic" values versus "Western" values (when asked about the stoning of women in Iran, she said: "Ah yes, but there is a moratorium on that." Ok, temporarily, no stoning).
In Davos, a Bahraini banker friend, said to me: "While you Iranians are fighting these political battles, the business world is moving on without you." Sad, but true.
What makes Iran's economic decline so tragic is its enormous potential. A country that could be the Germany of the Middle East, economically, is behaving more like Albania. Neither Egypt nor Jordan — two of the latest trendy investment destinations — can compete with Iran's enormous potential. And yet, the story of post-revolution Iran is largely one of economic decline and absence from global business. In the AT Kearny/Foreign Policy index of globalization, Iran ranked last in 2005, a distinction it has held for five years running.
The good news is this: two Iranians in attendance at WEF Jordan, Professor Mahmood Sariolghalam and former Parliament member Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, showed the world a side of Iran that many Iranians know: smart, sophisticated, progressive, post-Islamist, and even post-ideological.
Haghighatjoo, in particular, was striking because she wore a tight headscarf and manteau, but spoke with more passion and eloquence about liberalism and women's rights than any of the other "modern-looking" women in attendance. But neither Sariolghalam nor Haghighatjoo are businesspeople. As they presented the cultural and political evolution of Iranian thinkers, pragmatic businessmen from around the region were making deals that intricately linked their economies and offered hopes for job-creation.
While the sleeping giant of Iran's cultural and intellectual might have awoken, the sleeping giant of Iranian business remains dormant.