Q. Why do the Irish have the potatoes and the Arabs have the oil?
A. Because the Irish had first choice.
Natural resources are both a blessing and a curse. While they can be a source of wealth and prosperity for a country, they are something that is obtained with relatively little effort. As such, they can invariably lead to laziness and complacency. Just have a look at rates of literacy and innovation in so-called “rich” Arab nations – they are among the worst in the world. While there are many reasons for this, their economic dependence on oil was certainly a contributing factor.
In Australia, we are running a two-speed economy in the current mining boom. Demand from China and India for the stuff we have in the ground is one of the reasons our economy has stayed out of the deep recession affecting other countries. But what of the non-mining industry? Retail is weak, business confidence and investment is down, and people don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.
I was thinking about all of this as I pondered this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, in which God promises the land of Israel to Abraham. There are two angles to this:
Israel is variously described in the Torah as a land flowing with milk and honey; a land of brooks, waters, and fountains; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will hew brass; and so on. This doesn’t seem to correlate with the Israel we know today. Agriculture has not come easy, water is scarce, and there is little in the way of natural resources. So what’s the big blessing? I’m not about to launch into an exposition and explanation of how we might understand these attributes and what they mean (because I don’t know). However, I think the lack of natural resources in Israel is itself a form of blessing, because it has led modern Israel to be one of the leading knowledge economies in the world. Israeli companies are world leaders in technology and innovation. Israel’s economic success has been built not on the stuff in the ground, but on its people, and that is a resource that won’t run dry in 2005 like an oil well might.
The other thing that came to me today was about another natural resource found in abundance in the Middle East, but one whose economic potential has not yet been fully realized. What is the world’s biggest industry? Tourism. Imagine the huge untapped market for biblical tourism that could be unlocked if countries like Iraq were more open to the western world. Christians and Jews would flock to visit ancient cities and to follow the historical trail of the Patriarchs.
Historical sites are a far better natural resource than oil. They don’t deplete, and a strong tourism industry leads to cultural exchange and tolerance for others. And a bit of tolerance for others wouldn’t go astray in the Arab world.
Yes, I know it’s a bit of a pipe dream for a group of Jews to celebrate the weekly Torah portion of Lech Lecha by visiting Ur (the birthplace of Abraham), but as they say, “if you will it, it is no dream!”