Re-Counting the Past

"To understand economic growth in the Middle East, we must first find information about it"

NYU Abu Dhabi Global Distinguished Professor of Economic History Robert Allen is leading a massive data collection project that will help tell the largely untold story of Middle East economic history.

In the past, people used numbers to describe their incomes, the prices of the goods they bought and sold, the volume of trade, the population of provinces and its division into religious and national groups, and for many other purposes. Allen’s research initiative, Re-counting the Past, gathers those numbers from Middle East countries for the first time. All of the data collected will be available online.

The information will allow Allen, and his group of NYUAD student research assistants, to track the integration of the Middle East into the world economy. The project also aims to calculate the profitability of traditional activities as well as modern technology, evaluate development projects like irrigation, railways, and improved roads, and measure real incomes and standards of living. The results, Allen said, will provide the basis for assessing grander theories about economic growth and stagnation in the Middle East.

Allen, a former adviser to the World Bank, said eventually “we hope to display data on population, imports, exports, the cost of traveling and shipping goods overland and across the oceans, the production of old and new industries, wholesale prices of principal products, retail prices of main consumer goods, and the wages and earnings of workers and other members of society.” The volume of imports and exports, for example, is one indicator of trade connections between the Middle East and the rest of the world, Allen said.