x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Power list of simple intellectual arrogance

It is the responsibility of the architects of a failed system to put the thing right.

We are list-obsessed, it seems. The rich lists, the power lists, the billionaires lists, even, these days, the "bust" lists of the biggest losers from the financial crisis. Business journalists love them because they inject some personality into their rather dry subject; readers like them because they give a yardstick of comparison and insight into a rarified world few can expect to directly experience. How did Bill Gates get all of that money? Why didn't I think of that wealth-generating wheeze?

The august Financial Times rarely goes in for such populist journalistic techniques. When I worked there, many years ago now, one of my first jobs was to compile and launch a list of European companies ranked in order of profitability. That has morphed into the FT 500 - a comprehensive, if dull, schedule of the biggest corporates in the world. Invaluable, if not exactly something you would read while soaking in the bath.

Last week there was something of a departure for the FT. As part of the paper's admirable special series on the future of global capitalism, it produced a table of 50 people who will "frame the debate" on the nature of the post-crisis world. Great, I thought: the FT's first power list, with all the resources and insight that prestigious paper can bring. What a disappointment. It was not a list, in that it did not rank in order of importance - though with Barack Obama, the US president, on the top left corner and a little-known Singaporean academic on the bottom right, you got some idea of the FT's priorities. But if these really are the people who will decide the future of the world economy, we are in serious trouble. Some of them resemble those who got us into this almighty mess in the first place.

Western politicians, bankers, business leaders and academics, overwhelmingly male and over 50 years old; a high proportion of US nationals, many of whom have taught or attended a US east-coast Ivy League university; a large presence from former US banking giant Goldman Sachs; mixed with the usual scattering of George Soros-type entrepreneurs and a few Asian faces. If it had run as a list of "50 people to blame for the credit crunch", many names would remain intact.

And only one Arab. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al Thani, the prime minister of Qatar and head of the country's sovereign wealth fund, was the sole representative of the Middle East. His keffiyeh stuck out conspicuously from the sea of grey-haired men with glasses. I asked Lionel Barber, the editor of the FT, who wrote an analysis of the 50, about this apparently glaring omission. The Middle East, after all, is the energy powerhouse of the world and home to some of the richest sovereign wealth funds. So why nobody from Saudi Arabia, repository of the world's biggest oil reserves? Or Abu Dhabi, home of the biggest sovereign wealth fund? Or Dubai, still the commercial marketplace of the Gulf region?

"Yes, you're right about Abu Dhabi and yes we could have had more Arab representatives, though Dubai is somewhat under a cloud right now. The trouble with lists is that you always leave out deserving candidates, though I suspect resolving the crisis will still involve more western leadership and co-operation," Mr Barber replied. Leave aside for the moment whether or not Dubai is "under a cloud". If it is, the Dubai political and economic establishment is taking urgent and decisive steps to lift it. What bothers me about Mr Barber's response is the bit about the West.

You could argue that, because it was essentially a systemic failure of western financial and economic models that caused the asset bubble and resulting credit crunch, it is the responsibility of the architects of that system to put the thing right, to identify the flaws in their own structures that brought the world to the depths of economic recession and suggest ways to dig us out. That is obvious and sensible.

You could also argue that because the effects of the financial collapse are more serious in the West, more damaging to western standards of living and economic well-being, that it is up to those leaders to put their own house in order first. Again, that is common sense. But I suspect what Mr Barber means is something different. He implies that western "leadership" is necessary to resolve the current crisis, and to frame the future of the system that will replace failed liberal capitalism. Others can learn and follow, but the West must lead. This strikes me as simple intellectual arrogance.

To contemplate designing a new world economic order without the active w of the Middle East would be utterly foolish, and would invite a repetition - in 20 or 50 years time - of the calamitous events we are now experiencing. Globalisation is not a one-way street. fkane@thenational.ae