When presidential candidate Mitt Romney was asked last week why there was such a huge gap in the economic performance of the Palestinians and Israelis, he responded promptly, "Culture makes all the difference."
And the wrath of God and the Politically Correct immediately descended upon the GOP presidential challenger. The Palestinian Liberation Organization immediately declared the response was "racist."
Yet, as Richard Cohen of The Washington Post pointed out this week, the Arab Human Development Report of 2002 pointed to three "deficits" in Arab society that are "obstacles" to progress - lack of political freedom, a narrow knowledge base and the status of women.
On the face of it, these three "deficits" would make it difficult - if not impossible - for any society to thrive economically.
What incentive is there to work hard, if there is not freedom to enjoy the fruits of that work? What society can prosper if there is scant value given to education? Finally, how does a society as a whole get the best ideas of its people if 50 percent of the populace is forbidden from participating simply because of gender?
And none of those "obvious deficits" even hint at the dispiritedness caused in a people when all power and wealth are concentrated in a small ruling elite. The promise of the Arab Spring will not be realized unless the underlying culture of the region changes.
So the question may have been about the Palestinians, but the answer applies throughout the region. Until a culture develops that embraces freedom, encourages universal education and values women, it is hard to imagine the Middle East flourishing.
Yes, there are an elite few who live the life of Riley thanks to the region's petroleum reserves. But the dominant culture almost guarantees the area will remain a poverty-stricken political cauldron.
* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.