Caravan crossing the Silk Road. Detail of the map of Asia, from the Catalan Atlas. Spain, Majorca. 14th CE.
Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz /
Art Resource, NY

“I would say the big idea is reconnecting Arab and Islamic tradition with its history of markets and free and open trade.”
—Fred McMahon

thousand years ago the picturesque caravans of Arab traders wound their way along the Silk Road to Samarkand and carried commerce to many other points of the compass. That is the heritage of economic freedom which the Fraser Institute, a think tank based in Vancouver,Canada, is seeking to reassert through its program “Build Enterprise-Based Prosperity in the Arab World.”
The Fraser Institute was one of the three think tanks that won a $500,000 award under the Templeton Foundation’s “What Works in Enterprise-Based Solutions to Poverty” program in 2005. The Centre for Globalization Studies, a specialized department of the Institute, used this resource to fund its research and dissemination program on economic freedom in the Arab world over three years, from 2005 to 2007.
Its primary outcome was the production of the Economic Freedom of the Arab World Index, which employed around 39 variables to chart the strengths and defects of the various governments and nations of the Arab world with regard to freedom of markets. It provides both a description of each national economy and a prescription for reform. It has had good penetration in the Arab world, reports Fred McMahon, director of the Centre for Globalization Studies, in charge of the project.
“That led to a number of other achievements,” he says. “We now have the beginnings in Muscat (Oman), Beirut (Lebanon), and Amman (Jordan) of building an Arab economic freedom network, bringing people all across the region—from North Africa to the Palestinian territories—to talk about ways to advance economic freedom. Our meeting in Jordan was attended by two cabinet ministers, one bringing the patronage of King Abdullah II and the other providing the keynote address.”
Only a drastic deterioration in the security situation prevented the Prime Minister of Lebanon from addressing the meeting held by the Centre in Beirut, though the organizers gained credit by going ahead with it. Another outcome of the project was the emergence of the International Research Foundation, of Muscat. “Independent think tanks are fairly rare in that region,” explains McMahon. “In fact, I think there’s reason to believe that our work with the International Research Foundation produced the first independent think tank in the Arab world dedicated to promoting the free market and economic freedom.”
He and his colleagues collaborated with the nascent Arab think tank to conduct localized research in Oman. “We had a day-long seminar in Muscat looking through all the policies of Oman that affected economic freedom. We had top government leaders, business leaders, academics, press, which of course helps build a constituency for a reform process. Very innovative ideas came up that led to the production of a report, Oman: On the Road Towards Economic Freedom.”
The demon that the project sought to exorcize in the Arab world is the post-colonial legacy of European socialism and big government, described by the Centre as “this poisonous Western import.” Historically, the Arab region was the leading trading civilization centuries ago. “But it is remarkable how important it is to remind people in the region of that,” says McMahon, “because there’s been this overlay of big-government socialist thinking. So I’m commonly asked at press conferences, ‘How can you expect us to be like the West? You’re bringing in a foreign tradition.’ ”
He ripostes that the foreign tradition is socialism and big government. “That tradition comes from outside. The real tradition here is trading and free market-led. It’s remarkable, it doesn’t take long to get that message across. Somebody has to be there to say it.” McMahon compares the situation with what happened in America and Britain in the 1970s, when think tanks were struggling, beneath the radar, to disseminate free market ideas. “Then all of a sudden Thatcher was there and Reagan was there.”
He thinks, however, that the message is slowly getting through “to the mythical Arab on the street.” The message is that with free markets you can achieve things, to create prosperity and jobs for yourself, your family, and community. “At our meeting in Jordan, I was interviewed three times by Al-Jazeera, twice by the local Jordanian networks. We were clearly making an impression.”
What does he regard as the big question, in relation to improving economic freedom in the Arab world? “I have more than once commented that the first real era of globalization was during the early centuries in the Islamic world when the trading network stretched from Spain to China. I would say the big idea is reconnecting Arab and Islamic tradition with its history of markets and free and open trade.”