Why a young, tiny country like South Korea has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world while leading Muslim countries such as Egypt with a rich history find themselves struggling on the margins

My essay “Their Lives, Our Lives” few months back highlighted the value assigned to human lives in “developed” countries vis-à-vis “third world” countries in general and Muslim world in particular. I specifically mentioned the sensitivity shown by South Korean leadership towards the lives of South Korean citizens and how cheap is human life for the leadership in our parts of the world.

I was speaking at an international conference last week where a co-participant from the World Bank, Washington, made an interesting presentation. The focus of her presentation was the Rail & Metro Infrastructure in South Korea and one of the largest Arab and Muslim countries, Egypt.

While we are well aware of the deep-rooted corruption and chronic inefficiencies plaguing our societies (and reflected in the state of our economies) but encountering hard statistics accentuates a combined sense of shame and grief. Here is a quick and high level comparison of the two economies!

South Korea

  • Got independence in August 1945
  • Area of little over 100,000 square kilometers
  • Total population of the country is over 50 million
  • The capital city Seoul’s population exceeds 10 million
  • Unemployment rate is 3.4%
  • GDP is close to US Dollars 1.5 trillion
  • GDP per capita is close to US Dollars 26,000
  • Railways network (which is a key pre-requisite for population mobility and business
  • growth) is about 3,700 kilometer long – 60% is electrified and 55% double tracked.
  • Korean railway carries almost 40M tons of freights and over 27M passengers per year.
  • Maximum speed of Korean railway system is 300 kilometers per hour!
  • South Korea uses a major chunk of homemade equipment for its railways and also
  • exports to countries like Egypt.

All this is achieved in the last 50 years on the back of one of the best education systems in the world combined with vibrant democracy. The world renowned Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) consistently puts South Korean students within the top 3 in the world. PISA is an international test for 15-year-olds that has been administered in reading, math, and science since 2000. (Source: Huffington Post 4th January 2014)


Egypt is one of the front-line Arab and Muslim states in the world. In terms of history, culture and education, it has no parallel in the Muslim world. However, like the rest of the Muslim world, it has experienced decline across all the key benchmarks that make nations successful and hence respectable.

  • Got independence in August 1922 (almost 23 years before South Korea)!
  • Area of little over 1,000 million square kilometers (many times larger than South Korea)!
  • Total population of the country is over 95 million (almost double than South Korea)
  • The capital city Cairo’s population is close to 18 million (almost double than Seoul)
  • Unemployment rate is 13.4% (almost 4 times higher than South Korea)
  • GDP is close to US Dollars 250 billion (almost one/sixth of South Korea)! GDP per capita is close to US Dollars 3,000 (less than one/eighth of South Korea)!!
  • Egyptian Railways network was the first one to be constructed in Africa and started
  • operations in 1856. Out of 5000 kilometer long line, only 1% is electrified and about
  • 25% double-tracked. Egyptian railway carries only 12M tons of freight but 852M
  • passengers per year. However, the maximum speed is pathetic at 60-70 kilometers per
  • hours! Almost all the equipment used for running its railways are imported from
  • abroad.

Since today’s 15-year olds will lead their respective nations in coming years and decades, it is alarming that Egypt (and other major Muslim countries except Turkey and Malaysia) does not even exist in the PISA list. UAE, the only Arab country in the 2013 list of 44 participating nations, stood at number 5 from the bottom of the list. The four countries at the bottom were were Montenegro Bulgaria, Colombia and Uruguay.

A sorry state of affairs indeed. A comprehensive and immediate overhaul of the education system throughout the Muslim world is the one and only way to come out of its predicament.

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