Last updated April 14, 2017
Dateline: Doha, Qatar
I’ve been on the move lately and, as a study in capitalism, I decided that I was going to visit the world’s wealthiest country.
It may not come as a surprise that the world’s wealthiest country wasn’t as well settled until recently. The fact that it has a long coastline didn’t help much.
As a result, this place is really diverse. There is the amazement of the big city… but also wide open spaces. In one corner you have bankers; in another corner you have herders managing their flocks in rural areas.
With so much open land, it isn’t surprising that most of the country’s population lives on the eastern seaboard.
In addition to being the richest country in the world, this country is of course substantially wealthy than the other countries in the region. Some of these other countries have great prospects but suffer from “banana republic” authoritarian governments that keep productivity down.
And while there are some racial tensions in this wealthy country, for the most part people still want to come and work here, even from thousands of miles away. In fact, in some areas there are far more foreign workers than locals.
Sure, some people look down on these poorer workers, but it is that immigration that has allowed this wealthy country to bask in endless air conditioning and the luxuries of life.
Ownership of luxury cars is one of the highest in the world per capita. And consumer spending has posted impressive increases in recent quarters.
And as a result of such wealth, this country has desired to play some role in world politics. They supported some of the Arab Spring uprisings a few years ago and are one of the most influential centers of journalism in the world.
And they’ve amassed amazing wealth thanks to rich oil and gas deposits and a commitment to energy jobs.
Now, by all measures, I could be referring to the United States.
But I’m not.
Because the United States, despite what many US persons will tell you, is far from the richest country in the world. So are most influential European countries.
In fact, the richest country in the world is right here in Qatar.
Qatar is a very interesting case study for wealth. Of course, it’s no secret that the place has been wildly successful as a result of its oil wealth. However, the country has also become a center for international trade and banking, competing with the neighboring UAE financial centers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Qatar is also home to the world’s only “five star airline”, Qatar Airways, which I can confirm offers excellent service. You can’t even compare it to the slop service you get from rapidly devaluing US airlines, which I now refuse to fly they are so bad.
The airport here is sparkling and easy to navigate. Things here just seem to work.
So what has Qatar done to make itself the richest nation on earth?
It would be easy to say that the country’s vast oil reserves tell the entire tale. And while Qatar would indeed just be another speck in the desert if it weren’t for the petroleum business, so would Singapore be a humid swamp and Panama… well, a slightly less humid swamp.
For some time now, I’ve been telling you that small countries are better aligned for success for several reasons:
1. Small countries don’t have huge native tax bases to rely on. Qatar has fewer than 300,000 native Qataris and a 5:1 ratio of expatriates to locals. That makes the local population here smaller than the entire country of Iceland. Qatar couldn’t simply tax a bunch of tax slaves/
2. Small countries have to exploit their resources. Countries like the United States can sit around and debate whether to extract oil or gas reserves from the ground. They can complain about their banking sector, or regulate everything from the automotive industry to the plastic bag industry out of business. They figure that they are so good
3. Small countries rarely see a need to fight for some “greater good”. Talk about Normandy or D-Day all you want; since World War II, the western world has been a meddler much more than it has been any kind of force for good.
Yet hundreds of trillions of dollars worldwide have been siphoned from western tax coffers into the pockets of government cronies in the military industrial complex. If you live in a high-tax western country, you footed that bill.
A bill you wouldn’t have had to foot if you lived in a more neutral country that focused on building wealth rather than fighting wars. It’s amazing how, after racking up nearly $20 trillion in debt (and that’s just what the government admits to), Americans and westerners are finally saying “let the Iraqis fight for themselves”. By the time countries make these realizations, it is usually far too late.
The economic damage is irreversible.
The United States and Europe are like the snarky smart kids in high school who figure they don’t need to study because they’re so much smarter than everyone else. That strategy may work for awhile, but generally those kids get passed up by the kids that work their tails off.
You can have all the oil you want, but if your politicians bungle the job and leave it all sitting in the ground, you’ll be just as poor as some country whose borders are filled with nothing but sand.
When your money is on the line, you should always bet on the place that has to work hard to be successful. You can say that the Middle East only has any wealth because of oil, but somehow the oil-rich United States failed to learn how that works.
One of my favorite books, The Geography of Bliss, tells a story of going around Qatar and seeing nothing but Bentleys and Maseratis driven by Qataris who had full-time maids, nannies for their children, and barely had to do anything. Most people in the west do not have these things. Even rich people in the United States spend Saturdays cleaning their own house.
While the average Qatari sees over six figures a year, the average American or European earns far less than that.
When a country puts more thought into getting its resources out of the ground and to market – including using those resources to prop up their own leading airline – rather than resting on its laurels and finding new ways to tax and harass its citizens, prosperity is a frequent result.
I mean, when was the last time anyone went out of their way to fly through the Detroit airport? Or JFK? Or that dump they call LAX? Those airports, just like the cities they sit in, decided they didn’t have to innovate.
Now, they’re becoming obsolete, and US airline CEOs have resorted to ad hominem attacks to feel better about their declining fortunes.
They figured, as I recently heard a US Customs agent say, “the USA is THE place to be”, and that they didn’t have to compete. They figured they could treat those they interact with with disdain, raising their taxes and subjecting them to inferior service.
That’s the attitude of an empire. And history is littered with empires that have come and gone.
The western governments that have overseen empires in centuries past can’t seem to understand that they no longer “have it”. My money is on the little-known places that are less style and more substance.
This shift in wealth has had an effect: consumers here in the Middle East are increasingly being sought after by international companies. Add me to that list; we recently started a business that works with Middle East customers. The simple reason is that they are simply better customers than Americans for what we’re doing in that business.