I spent the past two weeks in these ancient lands, mostly vacation with a little work. I did get to meet with government officials, academics and entrepreneurs in both markets. Here are a few observations from the trip.
1. Egypt is a huge and potentially powerful developing country. It is a unique mix of national and Muslim culture. Its 90 million people are the largest work force in the Middle East. They are often the best and brightest in engineering, medicine and architecture, going off to Dubai or London for work.
2. Egypt has suffered substantial damage to its vital tourism industry since the Revolution in 2011. As one of the four pillars of the economy (Suez Canal, oil, agriculture are others), tourism is off by 80 percent. My guide said that she had one tour every month in the years before 2011, now she can count her days working on two hands.
3. The historical sites are majestic, beyond expectation and awe-inspiring. The pyramids in Giza are 4,500 years old, massive in scale, defying logic in having 150 levels of stone from the base. The temples are tributes to powerful pharaohs such as Ramses II, who ruled for 67 years and had over 100 daughters and 96 sons while fighting wars with the Nubians to the South and Syrians to the North.
4. There is one megalopolis, Cairo, plus several substantial cities including Alexandria and Aswan. Cairo is laid out in an imperial manner, with grand boulevards dating from the 1800s when a French urban planner was tasked with a creating a global scale city. But Cairo is in a protective crouch, with military personnel very much in evidence in key locations and large concrete blocks preventing access to the U.S. Embassy among others. There is a crying need for investment in infrastructure and real estate… it seems a once grand city that has gone to sleep.
5. The service is episodically brilliant, but too often careless and slow. There is no evidence of technology, relying on writing of orders on a pad for transmission to the kitchen, rather than a digital device. There is not a heritage of customer first, whatever the circumstance. The exception was the cruise I took down the Nile where the service was stunningly good.
6. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, leader of the country, is cutting subsidies on gasoline and bread. He is also making the hard choices on cuts in government staffing. One in four jobs is now in the public sector; the prestigious choice is the army instead of being an entrepreneur.
7. Agriculture is omnipresent along both sides of the Nile, as you travel by boat from Luxor to Aswan. The bellowing cows, the date palm plantations, the acres of truck farms growing tomatoes and cabbage, is evidence of smallholder agriculture, prompted by a need to sub-divide property among multiple children. One stunning visual was tomatoes laid out to dry by the female work force in dark burkas before going into boxes.
8. The American University in Cairo, run by a former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, is the best institution of higher learning in the country. It has 5,000 students on campus, largely from the Middle East. It will lead the change in the economy with its new center for entrepreneurship. The university has roots in the evangelical missionary movement in the Midwest, founded nearly 100 years ago.
1. The country is deeply divided on the future relationship with the Palestinians. The Prime Minister is adamant on the nation’s right to continue to build settlements in the West Bank. The left (or peace party), feels this is utterly counterproductive and will drive campaigns of divestment and detachment from global organizations such as the UN. The two-state solution is on life support.
2. The election of Donald Trump is welcomed. There is great hope for a move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The American policy on Iran could well change. The ability of the new Administration to negotiate with Russia may well lead to a solution in Syria.
3. The most amazing experience is a walk underneath a portion of the Arab Quarter along the approach to the Western Wall of the Second Temple, built by Herod over 2,000 years ago. I went with Yehuda, who is an Orthodox rabbi and line by line reader of the Torah. He excavated the path, a quarter mile below ground, beginning in the City of David all the way to the Temple Mount. He quotes passages from the scripture, from Jeremiah and other prophets, as he guides you along this walk of history.
4. The Israeli tech entrepreneurs are a raucous and optimistic bunch, working on everything from artificial intelligence to an early warning system on social media. The proverbial godfather, Yossi Vardi, has done a superb job of building a community around his DLD conference.
5. My hike up the Snake Path at Masada was mystical. The fog rolled in, enveloping the entire mountain. The scene is surreal; a bar mitzvah was being held in the small room that served as a synagogue at the peak, the outline of the Roman camp still visible from the date of conquest in 72 AD, even the siege ramp to the hole in the fortress wall.
6. A visit to the first Kibbutz in Isreal, Degania, in the Galilee, started in 1909 by a group of Russian immigrants, has morphed into a large dairy operation and manufacturer of saws for the diamond cutters. I met one of the grandchildren of the founders of the Kibbutz. It has a period house that looks as if it were transported from Frankfurt, built in the 1920s.
7. Israeli ingenuity was never more evident than in the Ayalon bullet factory built during the British occupation of Palestine. It was constructed underneath an urban kibbutz. The workers had a bakery and laundry which provided constant clatter to disguise the work carried on below ground. It sits near the Weitzmann Institute of Science
8. The best meal was at a restaurant owned by Uri Buri, a bearded bear of a man who has made his seafood menu into a culinary experience without compare. It is located in Acre, an ancient Crusader town.
9. Herod, King of the Jews just before the Millenium, knew how to entertain his people. His new town of Caesaria, built as a tribute to the Emperor Caesar Augustus, had a large theater and hippodrome for chariot racing. On the Mediterranean, just outside of Tel Aviv, it is a recognition of Roman power and cultural influence.
10. The sheer joy in the celebration of the Sabbath at the Temple Mount was infectious. The young soldiers linking arms and dancing in circles, the devout praying at the Wall, the singing and chanting in small groups all made for an indelible experience.
I am back, refreshed and ready for the launch of the Edelman Trust Barometer 2017. Wishing all of you a great new year.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.