Many were taken by surprise when news leaked that locally and internationally acclaimed economist Rania Al-Mashat was appointed to become Egypt’s minister of tourism, followingsucceeding Yehia Rashed, who was known for his quite impressive record of experience in the field and for the pivotal roles he played therein for many years. Mostly, comments on the matter were expressing a lack of understanding for the move, given that Al-Mashat has no previous history of any kind in the tourism sector and that the vast experience she has gathered throughout the years—regardless of its quality and value—does by no means qualify her to manage what is not only one of Egypt’s most important and most complex economic structures but also its primary source of foreign currency.
Those critics obviously believe it to be self-explanatory that this position in particular ultimately requires a profound knowledge of all the tiny, little technical details such as how to spread a table cloth in a restaurant, furnishing a five stars hotel room, or even the ability to analyzeanalyse air traffic at Egyptian airports, and possibly also those in major countries exporting tourism to Egypt.
That indeed does reflect one of our most elementary and common misunderstandings as to what kind of qualifications a minister should have and what functions they need to fulfil, be it the minister of tourism or any other. The pretence here is apparently pure technocracy, i.e. that the minister of housing needs to be an architect, the minister of the interior a police officer, the minister of transportation an expert of roads and bridges, etc.
The trouble is that precisely this idea neglects both the political and administrative nature of a ministerial post. This foremostly involves the ability to manage the entire construct in a smooth and efficient manner according to internationally acknowledged principles of operational economics, to utilizse all of its components, hence maximising capitalisation on assets. It goes without saying that this especially applies to the Egyptian tourism industry that, which boasts quite a large number of world -class cadres very much capable of managing technical issues – —Kamel Abu Aly, Hossam El Shaer, and Samih Sawiris, to name just a few – —and does hence not need any moreother “experts” to run it. What it certainly does need, though, is some “fresh blood” with an outsideexternal perspective, thus dealing with the sector as an exclusively economic unit while still extensively consulting with the aforementioned capacitiesexpertise when taking critical technical decisions.
Personally, I tend to believe that Rania Al-Mashat could very well be one of the most successful tourism ministers in Egyptian history if she handles the situation right. Her previous top management positions at the International Monetary Fund, the Central Bank of Egypt, and the Egyptian Exchange, as well as her specialisation in the field of applied macroeconomics and the sensitive role she played in formulating Egypt’s monetary policies from 2005 to 2016—under sometimes severely difficult conditions—creates exactly the background needed to deal with the country’s somehow demolished tourism industry.
Its rejuvenation requires more than just decoration at international tourism fairs and airing a number of commercials on international channels. Instead, she could focus on increasing the efficiency of the complex and multifaceted economics, which relies on a deep understanding of capital utilisation mechanisms and the means of maximising capitalisation on available assets. In the context of Egyptian tourism, the latter are of course very difficult to control by whichever means as they are, after all, not machinery that could be bought or replaced. Nor are they real estate property waiting to be developed, but rather, elements of nature and a cultural heritage that is widely considered to be a very important part of mankind’s history.
The truth is I do not know how far El MashatAl-Mashat will actually be able to fulfil the expectations and confidence placed in her. But what I do know for sure is that the principle according to which she was selected for this post is right all the way through and has been applied all over the world for decades now, despite some in our country still objecting to this very new idea, which in fact is very very old.
Mohamed Shirin El Hawary is a Political Economist