The Arab World Unbound By Vijay Mahajan

Book review: The Arab World Unbound'The Arab World Unbound' deserves to be read for presenting a view of the Middle East that is rarely seen, says Matthew Partridge.


By Vijay MahajanPublished by Jossey-Bass

With China's economic miracle rapidly unravelling, the hunt is on for the next big emerging market power. Professor Vijay Mahajan of the University of Texas thinks he may have found it.

His core argument is that the Arab world can be divided into three groups. The elite "Arab One" group is wealthy, highly educated and sophisticated. This group will pay large sums for top global brands. But they're also interested in creating wealth, rather than just consuming it, setting up firms to meet domestic demand and compete on the global stage.

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The book spends a lot of time on this elite group, who have the most financial power, but it argues that the rest of the population can't be ignored. From the oil-rich Gulf countries to poverty-stricken Sudan, the middle-class, or "Arab Two" group, represents a large chunk of the population.

While their tastes are more traditional, they are still receptive to firms that market their goods appropriately and adjust prices to take account of the cash-based nature of the economy. Even "Arab Three", the lowest-income segment of the population, is willing to spend money on certain value brands.

Mahajan is unafraid to confront conventional wisdom. The main theme of his book is that the Middle East is not that different from the rest of the world. For example, goods that are banned in many Arab countries because of their association with Israel still manage to find their way into shops and market stalls because there is high demand for them. He also argues that, while women are still second-class citizens in many areas, they still have considerable economic power.

But while other books on the Middle East may be too pessimistic, The Arab World Unbound veers too far in the other direction. There is little recognition that the region's institutions still need substantial reform: corruption runs rampant in many countries, while the state controls large swathes of the region's economies.

More importantly, given that most of the research underpinning the book took place before the recent Arab Spring' revolts, there is a danger that Mahajan's analysis may already be out of date a comment that an advertisement for a Syrian bank is an example of clever marketing now looks a little insensitive.

Nonetheless, The Arab World Unbound deserves reading for presenting a view of the region that is rarely seen. Management Today praises it for its "valuable up-to-date data and shrewd observations". And as the FT concludes, "even if you are not planning to do business in the region but simply want to know more about the markets and its peoples, this is a book worth buying".

The Arab World Unbound: Tapping into the Power of 350 Million Consumers by Vijay Mahajan. Published by Jossey-Bass, £26.99.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri