More about the Regions of the World


Continuing excerpts each Monday from My book, which is available here:
5. Europe has a Sunbelt, too.

Europe, too, is often subject to oversimplification in the minds of Americans. We’re aware of Germany’s enormous economic and industrial power, and ties of language, culture, politics, and ancestry give us some insight into the peoples of the British Isles. But we often overlook the growing influence and importance of other regions of Europe. In recent years, economic power is accumulating in surprising places – in high-tech manufacturing powerhouses like Nokia (Finland), in world-class retailers like IKEA (Denmark), and in banking powerhouses like Santander (Spain).
One starting point for Americans in understanding Europe is to realize that, like the United States, Europe has a colder, slower-growing North and a warmer, booming South. While we do not normally think of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Malta as the Arizonas and Floridas of Europe, such a view can be helpful.
In addition, Europe probably has a lock on being the tourism center of the world. (As you will see later, I believe tourism will be one of the great growth industries of the new century). Building all those cathedrals and painting all those paintings has paid off! Spain, Southern France, and Italy combine sunshine, history, and a tourism infrastructure like few other places on earth. Some call Europe the world’s Disneyland – like it or not, there is some truth to it.
In addition, we tend to think of the former Communist nations as a unit, when in fact there are enormous differences among countries like Poland, Romania, Albania, and the Czech Republic, and even among the several states that emerged from the ruins of the former Yugoslavia. It’s a mistake to assume that all of these regions are educationally backward, ecologically ruined, and hopelessly impoverished. If you visit Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic, you can sense the opportunity in the air. Talk with some of their hopeful, energetic, bright young professionals and you can see that these nations will be far more powerful and prosperous twenty years from now than they are today.

6. The Middle East, North Africa, and the culture of Islam are much more complex than we may think.

Most Americans are well-versed on the Christian religion. But our awareness of the other major faiths sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. One of the fastest-growing religions in the United States (and the world) is Islam, now with an estimated four to seven million practicing Muslims in America. Since this is also one of the most misunderstood faiths, it is worth examining in more detail.
Often we think of Islam as being an “Arab” religion. Certainly most Arabs are Islamic, and Islam started with the Arabs. But Christianity started in Palestine, and we don’t think of all Christians as Palestinians. Today, Islam not only stretches from Morocco to Indonesia half a world away, but is very present in such varying countries as Russia, Britain, France, and the United States. The following table lists the largest countries that are majority Islamic.
Largest Nations that are Majority Islamic
Population (in Millions in 2000)
Saudi Arabia
To put these numbers in perspective, remember that California has 33.9 million people and Texas has 20.9 million.
Indonesia is a particularly interesting country. As the largest Islamic nation on earth (over 90% Islamic), it is the second largest country after the United States that shares the monotheistic Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage. In all three of these religions, children learn stories from the Hebrew Bible, such as those of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joseph. Muslims believe in Jesus Christ as a prophet before Mohammed and are allowed to marry Jews and Christians. All three religions were born in the same part of the world.
Each of these leading Islamic countries has its own style. Only Saudi Arabia can be considered completely “Arab.” In Morocco, for example, Jews have served in cabinet-level government posts, and Morocco was the first Islamic country to recognize the state of Israel. When Nazi Germany took over France, Morocco was a protectorate of France, so Hitler tried to get his hands on the many Moroccan Jews. But the grandfather of the present king of Morocco vowed that no Moroccan Jew would be touched, and his will, not Hitler’s, was done.
In Islamic culture, the roles of the judge and the religious leader are integrated. While this is antithetical to the system we have developed in the United States, it is not hard to understand its logic. Who should know right from wrong better than a man of the cloth? Islam, like Judaism, has a long tradition of studying the Word and learning the ancient laws. Muslim religious schools include some of the oldest universities on earth, which have been turning out men of law and men of religion—often the same men—for centuries.
Islamic scholars preserved the classics of Greece and Rome when the Christians of medieval Europe were hell-bent on destroying them. In the year 1000, Cordoba in Muslim Spain was one of the world’s greatest cities, with hundreds of booksellers – four centuries before the invention of the printing press! Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived peacefully side by side. Some of the greatest urban civilizations ever known were the great Islamic cities of Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Fes, Constantinople, and Granada.
In this context, it is easier to understand the idea behind a religious state like contemporary Iran. But it is also possible to understand Turkey – the Islamic nation that more than any other has tried to create a secular society with separation of church and state along the lines of American and most European practice. In both countries, it is a challenge for faithful Muslims to remain true to the spirit of their religion: religious Turks ask how church and state can possibly be separated, while modernist Iranians long for more freedom in their lifestyles.
While Islam may seem foreign to many Americans, it will not stay that way for long. With more and more people migrating to America from Islamic nations, and more Americans adopting this religion, you should not be surprised to see a new mosque being built in your neighborhood in coming years. That will be good for America, because it will help erode the stereotypes that prevent us from understanding an important and fascinating part of our world.
In large part because of our weak grasp of Islam, it is all too easy to generalize about the Middle East. We are quick to forget that, for example, under the Shah, Iran had built a large middle-class society, and even today remains one of the wealthier nations in the region. Algeria, while a political nightmare, is also relatively affluent.
Jordan and Morocco have been ruled by brave and progressive kings, both recently succeeded by their sons. Neither has any significant reserves of oil. Nations like Syria have been our “enemy” one day and our friend the next. Egypt and Turkey remain huge centers of commerce and culture, important to any enterprise doing business in the region. In particular, the Turkish city of Istanbul serves as the crucial link between Europe and the Middle East, a role it has filled for centuries.
Nations like Yemen and Oman hold great traditions and cultural secrets that have only recently being opened to the world. Lebanon is currently rebounding from war to rebuild its capital city of Beirut, once the business center of the Middle East. During Beirut’s years of decline, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) took on a new role as a progressive economic center of the region. This is a fascinating smaller country where, thirty years ago, seven independent sheikhs joined together into one nation for the benefit of their people. Ever since, they have been building up the nation’s infrastructure, its airlines (Gulf and Emirates), its shopping, and its facilities for tourism and recreation.
In this diverse and rapidly-growing (high birth rate) part of the world, it is a mistake to let the affairs of Israel and Palestine dominate our attention. Because our stereotypes about the Middle East are so deeply entrenched, it may take more effort and more study to reach full understanding of this region than of any other part of the world.

7. The three nations with the greatest unrealized potential are Brazil, India, and Indonesia. 

These three nations have a lot in common. In addition to their tropical climates and their large and growing populations, they all have incredibly wealthy, deep cultures. They also have huge natural resources, and lots of land with agricultural potential.
At the same time, they have many differences. They are Catholic, Hindu, and Islamic. In the past, they have had corrupt weak leaders (Brazil), corrupt powerful leaders (Indonesia), and an often-unfocused form of socialism and central planning (India). Brazil and Indonesia have invested heavily in their infrastructure, from airports and highways to skyscrapers, while India has not. Perhaps most importantly, Indonesia has invested in its people, achieving very high literacy rates among its children. Brazil has also made good progress in education, but India remains among the worst in the world, especially among its little girls.
In aggregate, especially in India, the average person has not been well-served by the leadership of the past. While all of these nations have seen increases in critical measures like lifespan and healthcare, they have been passed up by many other nations. It is sad to say that the average person in a Communist nation, China, has been better served, at least in the freer and more open 1990’s.
I believe that the future of these three nations rests in the hands of the people of these nations, in particular their business leaders and entrepreneurs. At the same time, the government leaders must create an environment that allows those entrepreneurs to flourish, and that allows new entrepreneurs to enter the field and prosper, rather than limiting the spoils to those already in the power circles. Distrust of business people and closure to world markets will only continue the poverty of the average person in these countries.
The leaders of these countries must also invest in their nations – in everything from railroads to schools. These are young nations trying to build for the future, and these are critical times.
India has been the world’s largest functioning democracy for 50 years, and today Indonesia and Brazil are also developing democratic traditions. While the success of some Asian countries can be attributed at least in part to strongmen in power, we also know that open democracies can succeed. But it takes even stronger leaders, ones who both can generate public support for bold programs as well as carry them out and retain their elected offices. It sometimes seems easier when you are the King.
For enterprises from around the world, Brazil, India, and Indonesia present enormous opportunities. But they also present great risks and uncertainties.
Brazilians have a bitter joke: “Brazil has the greatest potential of any nation on earth – it always has, and it always will.” Perhaps the twenty-first century will finally be the time when all three nations finally get beyond potential to achieve full participation on the world stage.

8. The early twenty-first century may be more critical to Latin America than to any other region on earth.

As the United States becomes more Latinized, our neighbors to the south will become more and more important to us. Having suffered under some of the worst and most abusive political leadership in the world, the peoples of this huge region are just now beginning to realize their enormous political and economic power.
I’ve already discussed the potential of Brazil, the largest of the Latin nations. Many of the same points could be made about other nations of Latin America.
In 2000, Mexico elected Vicente Fox as its first alternative-party President in over seventy years. A long history of institutionalized political corruption and insecurity may be coming to an end. Nothing could be more beneficial to the US.
Guatemala, the most populous nation in Central America, signed the peace treaty officially ending its lengthy civil war only five years ago. Guatemala’s life as a free, democratic country is just beginning.
Panama, Costa Rica, and El Salvador are all becoming business centers; one or more of these may become the UAE, the Singapore, or the Malaysia of Central America.
Peru, Bolivia, and Columbia have long been battling vicious and effective enemies ranging from violent Red Brigade guerrillas to powerful armies mustered by the drug cartels. Today they are making significant headway against these forces.
After tortured political pasts, Chile and Argentina have opened up and joined the world economy. Both are culturally wealthy nations that are now in a hurry to play their proper role on the world stage.
Throughout Latin America, the opportunities for culture, tourism, and commerce are enormous. As in Asia, some nations will be well led, while others will not. But there is no part of the world that is so clearly on the cusp, so clearly at a critical inflection point of history, as Latin America. The same holds true of the Caribbean, which will begin to determine its future course over the next twenty years, starting with the inevitable transition to a post-Castro regime in Cuba.