11 August 2005

The Annual Country Rankings! Part VII

Of course, there are places on Earth that are rich and reasonably pleasant places to live but can’t really be called First World. These are the Outliers. At present there are nine of them, and they can all be found after the jump.

The richest Outlier is Taiwan, which is at least as nice a place as Liechtenstein provided you like very tall buildings and humidity. It has a relatively stable democracy, although truly free elections only arrived in the last decade. It has a widely diversified modern economy and trades globally. But poor Taiwan, it’s not really a country. Or, is it?
The U.S. government does not have an answer. We don’t want to offend new best friend China lest they cut off the Wal-Mart supply chain and throw the American economy into complete disarray. Nearly every country in the world, and all the important ones, officially recognize the “one-China” policy, and proclaim that Taiwan should, at some point, reunify with China.
This is an absolutely ridiculous statement to make and I can’t possibly imagine anyone at all outside China actually believes it. Nonetheless, Taiwan has about 700 missiles pointed at it and could be wiped off the face of the earth in short order if they really pissed off their big angry neighbor, and without any real diplomatic recognition it must be argued that Taiwan is not stable or really free. So it’s an outlier.

Next down the list is Brunei, which is at least as nice as Greece, except Greek women look better than Bruneians, and again there’s that humidity factor (which may be why the Greeks are better looking). Brunei has made great strides in the last decade in improving literacy, life expectancy, and infant mortality rates, and is starting to look like a First World country in areas other than sheer wealth (though the median age is only 27, which would be the lowest in the First World). This is a very positive development for Bruneians and proves that, human nature be damned, the Hobbesian Leviathan can occasionally exist in the world.
But there is the matter of that Leviathan. His name is Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, he’s the Sultan of Brunei (one of two real sultans left in the world), and he has total control over every aspect of daily life in his little Sultanate.
Given the size of his country, I sort of think that Sultan Hassanal’s day must be a lot like playing a very large game of SimCity. He’s doing a pretty good job; Brunei has no foreign debt and the government runs a half-billion dollar surplus every year, while providing cradle-to-grave health care and free education through the university level, and subsidizing housing and rice (that would be like Uncle Sam giving you a free loaf of Wonder Bread and $100 towards your mortgage every week).
Still, great guy though he may be, the Sultan is a Leviathan, and I don’t allow such places into the First World. Brunei has a handful of other problems, too. The economy, though diversifying, is still too resource-dependent to be considered fully modern; 50% of GDP is based on oil and gas, and though new reserves of these wonderful products have recently been found that should keep Brunei in fat times for decades, that’s a shaky way to build an economy—especially when nearly two-thirds of your citizens are college graduates. Brunei has an excellent independent judiciary (though judges, of course, serve at the pleasure of the Sultan), and a separate Shari’a court system for family matters for Muslims (who make up two-thirds of the population). The Sultan has considered merging these two judicial systems; and any country with a judicial system based purely on religious law is not going to be in the First World as long as I’m making the definitions. We’ll see how that goes.

Next on the list is Israel, which is as nice as Greece but hotter and drier. Like Taiwan, Israel has a stable democracy, a free press, and a fully modern integrated economy. But numerous groups and countries in Israel’s immediate neighborhood have as their stated goal the ultimate destruction of the Israeli state. Given that the first world is a place where we don’t expect states to collapse or be destroyed or attacked by other states, it’s hard to justify locating Israel there.

South Korea (as comfortable as Slovenia but without so many sunny alpine vistas; also George Bush knows where it is) suffers from much the same problem as Israel and Taiwan; namely, an unpleasant and well-armed enemy bent on its destruction. Someday I suspect the Koreas will unite; but given the horrific state of the North Korean economy and populace, it will be a much harder merger than the German one. Until that time, South Korea remains an outlier.

Cyprus is the bottom country on the list of outliers, with an overall standard of living somewhere between that of the Czech Republic and Barbados. Cyprus is a bizarre little place; two-thirds of the island is run by the official Cypriot government and is populated by Greeks; one third is run by a pariah government recognized only by Turkey, and is populated only by Turks. This situation results from Cyprus’ status as the Korea of the Greek-Turkish Cold War. Additionally, two sizeable chunks of Cyprus are operated by the United Kingdom as overseas colonies; there is also a DMZ/Neutral Zone between the Greek and Turkish halves. Bear in mind the island of Cyprus is half the size of Connecticut; there’s a lot going on in a small space and everyone’s a little edgy.
The Greek half (which is the part world leaders and the UN are referring to when they say “Cyprus”) has recently joined the EU and has rather a nice standard of living, better than that of Greece itself. The Turkish half wasn’t even offered EU membership, since no EU country recognizes it; the standard of living there is worse than in Turkey itself. Combined together you get a place at the lower edge of first world status, though obviously because of the divide it’s hardly rational to call Cyprus first world. Which part would we be talking about?
Last year the UN put forth the latest in a series of reunification plans that would have brought the two halves of the island together. The Greek Cypriot government accepted the plan, though most Greek Cypriots thought it was too generous to the Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish Cypriot government rejected the plan, though most Turkish Cypriots supported it because unification was expected to improve living standards (and included EU membership, always a nice bonus). This is a very confused place.

The remaining outliers are the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain. These are the wealthy oil sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. Only the UAE and Bahrain have made any effort whatsoever to diversify their economies away from total dependence on oil, and the results are decidedly mixed. At any rate more than two-thirds their GDPs come from oil, and as I mentioned above a resource-based economy such as these can’t be called modern, and a modern economy is a prerequisite for first world membership.
Of course, these states have other problems besides, among them the use of religion as the primary judicial basis; near universal gender segregation; the lack of any real political participation; and limited press freedom (Qatar being a notable exception).
Among this group, Bahrain is clearly the most progressive. Known in parts of the Muslim world as “The island that Allah cannot see,” Bahrain has developed a significant tourist business (most clients come from other Gulf states to get their drinking, gambling, and whoring done away from Allah’s watchful eyes), is creating an offshore banking sector, and is moving away from oil production and toward oil refining and shipping, a more stable source of foreign exchange. The country also now has a parliament, though the king can veto any of the parliament’s decrees if he doesn’t like them. Strides are being made, but these countries have a long way to go.

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