September 11th brought all the issues of the Arab world to the stage; all the inconsistencies, the contradictions, cycles of crisis and political discourses. 9-11 and the US reactions and policies shook the Arab world. It created a dynamic and a process that is beyond our ability to stop and control. Yet if the ideals of democracy, development and tolerance are of any guide to us, we need to invoke them in times like these. This brief essay assumes that the present dilemma in the region is a result of two circumstances: One external that deals with the inconsistent policies of power politics and of US policies over the decades and another that is an expression of the regional failure to address its socio-economic and political problems. I am also assuming that such a failure is linked to limited economic reforms and lack of democratic processes. This essay is, therefore, a look inwards. It seeks the understanding and explanation of some of the inner dynamics that contribute to the explosive regional condition.
The Regional Potential
The Arab world is a region of great potential. Any review of its resources, people and capabilities can demonstrate to us the amount of waste in the present Arab system. The Arab population in the world will reach 500 million in the year 2025. It is now 270 million. The territory of the Arab world is 40% larger than that of Europe; it is larger than China. The Arab world together with Iran (a non-Arab country in the Gulf) holds 61% of the worlds known oil reserves and 21% of its natural gas. Arab investments in the world are way over a trillion dollars.
The region is rich in religions and in ethnicity; it includes Turkey and Iran in addition to 21 Arab states. It also includes Israel, a country born in 1948 in conflict with the Palestinians over lands and rights. Yet all these countries represent richness of culture, traditions and people. Iran is rich in its diversity, history and people, and this also applies to Turkey, a member of NATO, a potential member of the European Union and a potential model of the compromise between Islam and secularism. On the other hand Israel has one of the most advanced scientific and economic bases in the region while still in conflict with the region over its occupation of Arab and Palestinian land. In a time of peace the whole destructive death race and war can be turned towards a different future.
The region is also the place where the main three religions originated. It has a majority of Moslems and sizable Christian minorities, in addition to millions of Jews in Israel and in the region. The region has in addition to Arabic, other languages such as Kurdish, Assyrians, Berber, Persian, Armenian and Hebrew.
The Arab world has hundreds of thousands of trained entrepreneurs and many tens of thousands who studied in some of the best universities in the West and East. Many of those graduates see themselves as natural allies of the Internet change and globalisation. The entrepreneurial base is abundant in the region and could be a basis to any reform and economic take off.
Even the status occupied by women is different from one part of the Arab world to another. While in some Arab countries women must wear the Islamic hijab (only two), the remaining respect individual choice of dress. In some Arab countries like Lebanon or Dubai you may think you are in Madrid, Las Vegas, San Francisco or any other Western capital. The status of women with regards to education also varies from one country to another. In Kuwait University 70% of the students are female, and they have the highest of all GPA’s. This is also true in many other Arab countries. I was surprised to learn that 80% of those enrolled in colleges in Dubai were women and that their role in development in Dubai was instrumental and outstanding. This diversity can be seen across the countries, across classes, cities and villages throughout the region.
The region also has some democratic dynamics and binding constitutions. In Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar and Bahrain open politics is on the rise, and old traditions of civil society protect many freedoms and rights. In Lebanon the President is democratically elected and so is the Lebanese Parliament. The country has an open debate rarely seen in any other country besides Kuwait. Kuwait also has an elected Parliament, and abolished its press censorship in 1992 and the state security court in 1994. On the other hand, Dubai has become an open economy of unique attraction and standards unknown anywhere else in the region. It is increasingly becoming a media, capital and tourist attraction. Quite recently Bahrain held its first parliamentary elections in a long time and under a new Constitution, while Qatar, with its revolutionary media and its reform drive, is making an impact beyond expectations. This openness, though, is not so common in the region but, if spread, could be a prelude to democratic changes.
A regional retreat
Yet, the 21 Arab states (according to a recently published UNDP report) have lagged behind in almost every field. The region is the last among the regions of the world in indicators of freedom, democratic progress, human development, productivity and investment in research. The 21 Arab countries’ economy, with 270 million people, does not exceed that of Brazil, is equal to half that of Italy and less than that of Spain. Arab income is about 600 billion dollars. Average per capita income is 2,200 dollars, and it is unevenly distributed between rich and poor countries. One third of Arab countries fall below the 500-dollar level. All Arab exports of goods are more or less equal to that of Singapore or 65% of Netherlands’ exports. Today 72 million Arabs are deprived of sanitation, 34 million do not reach the age of 40 and 65 million Arabs are still illiterate, most of them are women. In fact women illiteracy has risen up in the last two decades. A quick reading of the UNDP report testifies to the state of things in the region.
In the midst of all the indicators, which may well be perceived as signs of regression, the Arab is a young population, in which 50% are under the age of 15 and over 60 % under the age of 21. 70% of all Arabs are under the age of 25. Unemployment in the Arab world amounts for 12 million people and is expected to double. In the region, there are four million Arabs per year who are seeking employment. The question that imposes itself on the region today is: Where are the institutions that are able to absorb the energies of the young? Where will the young find refuge: in revolutionary movements, in immigration, in the enrolment with Al Qaeda, in the loss of hope in the future?
Governance and accountability
Today the region is at a crossroad. Major decisions must be made by leaders or else the present retreat will further fragment the region and add to its violent eruptions. Without serious reform at all levels of government and leadership the present trend will destabilize and marginalize the region. It seems to me that reform in governance, coupled with serious economic development, should be the central drive for change. In this paper, I will broadly deal with governance, meaning leadership, and many other aspects. Governance has several dimensions that need to be understood.
Legal Dimension. The existence and readiness of the governments to respect the institutions of law and to refrain from interfering in their operations is essential to legal reform. Laws are essential ingredients of any development.
Laws in the Arab world have evolved from a combination of Western and Islamic law. Yet the institution of laws is, by itself, subject to political interference. The issue of freedom of thought is also still a serious crime in many Arab states. Writers, thinkers, authors still face many taboos in their attempt to express their opinion. The legal structure needs much change to accommodate respect for the individual, for women, and for political freedoms.
The Legislative Dimension. On the other hand, without a genuine and independent legislative, good governances cannot be achieved. The region, with very few exceptions, has no laws for political parties, no real parliaments able to perform its legislative duties with credibility. It is ironic that smaller states such as Lebanon, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain have been able to experience reform while larger states lag behind. Furthermore, a legislative controlled by Constitutions is a must. The tyranny of the majority is an old fear in all democracies. Therefore, courts that protect the Constitution in case parliaments pass non-constitutional laws are also a must for any democratic evolution.
The Bureaucratic Dimension. Many of the economies of the region are crippled with large bureaucracies. The Soviet model failed all over the world while the Middle East still kept major components of a socialist state. The private sector in most Arab countries (with few exceptions) has been under stress, dominated by the state, and has not been able to provide a meaningful contribution. This also prevented international investments from arriving to the region and helped direct Arab investments to Western and Asian markets. Over the last decade the bureaucracies of the region have lost whatever zeal they had. They have stagnated and helped dry the local economy and maintain a dull unchangeable statu quo. The huge centralized bureaucracies encourage patronage and favouritism, which undermine initiative and young energies. The main casualty in the region is the ability of the young to reach their potential and contribute to development. The young who join the bureaucracy end up consumed with its world of inefficiency and inner fighting.
In a region where the state dominates, any policies that undermine private initiative and reinforce centralization will automatically limit economic development. This is the same dilemma that centralization brought to the old Soviet system; lack of zeal and productivity.
Political System Dimension. The region is saturated with political systems that have the ability to weather any reform and override any attempt to renewal. The long periods of societal change and rising of new forces in society (women, middle classes, young, countryside, professionals) in the absence of meaningful reform makes the situation explosive and dangerous. Failed states and civil wars are a natural result of stagnation. This is what befell Algeria, Sudan, parts of Yemen and Lebanon (1975-1992).
School and Mosque Dimension. These two institutions have been victims of negative governance. The region abdicated its role in making the school a place for creativity. Educators, influenced by strict interpretations of Islam, dominated the Humanities. Much of the creative and literary free prose, poetry of love, human interaction and wisdom has been deleted, over the last two decades, from school curricula in the region. By ignoring the liberal arts and the social sciences in the schools and replacing much of the curriculum with Quranic themes, the Islamisation of public education was almost complete in many corners of the Arab world.
On the other hand, by abdicating the Mosque and its role, the governments of the region ended giving up local Mosques to some of the most extreme elements of society. Mosques were politicised and different political trends of Islamic nature both moderate and radical competed for the same Mosque. Once a Mosque is dominated, they controlled the Friday prayer and many of the activities associated with the Mosque. This usually alienated worshipers and added it to the process of radicalising the religion.
Since September 11th, governments all over the region are revisiting these issues. Some have already taken steps to reclaim the central role of the Mosque and others started reforming school curricula. However reform in these fields is difficult and will take years before Mosque and school move on in a different path.
It is important to remember that the Islam I knew as a child growing up in the fifties and sixties was different and open. Politics and religion were not one and the same. Islam was composed more of manners, modesty, respect for others and spirituality. It was an Islam that proved helpful as many of us feared communism and the control of matter over spirit. In Islam, mind and spirit come first.
Many verses in the Quran focus on tolerance and respect of others. Christians and Jews have a special place in Islam. Some radical interpreters of Islam did use some Quranic verses that reflect a particular experience with Jews or Christians during the prophets’ time and apply it to today’s conditions. All the usage is out of context, and does not reflect Quran’s respect for Christians and Jews.
The nature of opposition
In such an environment (lack of governance) the opposition can easily slip into seeing government in zero sum eyes. Therefore, political changes that cannot be accomplished in peaceful terms or via ballots and elections are decided in state security courts or by deportations and emergency regulations. The lack of meaningful elections and transfer of power leads to underground opposition. In most Arab countries no opposition is allowed with the exceptions of Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, and other small states in the region (Morocco is an exception of a larger Arab state). In other words: the dynamics of peaceful transformative change has been undermined or frozen in most of the region.
In this atmosphere of single leadership and limited political freedom, entire oppositions have problems with dialogue since this is centralized and non-democratic. This has led to non-democratic cycles. Many in government in the Arab world such as Iraq and Syria were opposition at one point. Many in other countries in the Arab world were revolutionary movements such as Algeria protesting colonial repression. When these movements came to power they tended to replicate the former repressive policies or the governments they rebelled against. Take a quick look: civil war in Algeria, another in Sudan, the situation under Saddam, and stagnation in Libya, all reflect a growing dilemma. A quick overview of the region will show as well that most of the countries do not have any meaningful opposition.
The Arab and Middle East environment produced the perfect conditions for the perfect utopian Puritanism. Failure of political leaders in providing meaningful political alternatives contributed to the radicalisation of the young. The lack of public debate and space for opposing points of views added to the single mindedness of extremists in Arab society. Two opposing extremes emerged: The party of the ruler or the party of the radical violent revolutionary. People had no other choice: either the ruler with all his mistakes and decades of rulership or the radical opposition with all its excess. The region, again with exceptions in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, had nothing in the middle to consider. In the absence of any space and alternatives people chose the statu quo and the opposition became even more and more violent. Al Qaeda is therefore a normal development under such conditions. Since September 11th, these issues have come to the forefront.
Arabs and Israelis
If we re-examine the 1967 war we would find the following. The defeat of the Arab world in 1967 was also a defeat of Arab nationalism (a secular movement) and this created a vacuum that was slowly and firmly filled with the emerging radical Islamic movements. The same defeat was a victory in Israel. But Israel as well suffered from the victor’s burden and its fundamentalists came to play a significant role since 1967. This process undermined Labour and all Centrist Israelis. The Arab Israeli conflict can only reinforce extremes on both sides and undermine much of the future.
The Arab Israeli conflict reinforced an Arab confrontation with the outside world and created limited need for renewal and self-reflection. The conflict made the Arab world willing to forgive military rulers, dictators, adventurists, corrupt practices, and limited freedoms in return for nationalist policies promising the Liberation of the lands lost in the 1948 and 1967 wars. Therefore, the region accepted Saddam’s proposal that Kuwait was a step in the direction of liberating the people of Palestine from Israeli occupation. The region accepted slogans such as “no voice is higher than the voice of the battle”. If one can speak of a single factor that helped retard the region, this is the Arab-Israeli conflict. It reinforced the statu quo and undermined the change from within the Arab world. It also helped shape our concept of human rights in collective terms and rarely in individual terms. Leaving the question of Palestine unaddressed would carry on the cycle of destruction in the region with potential spill over to other regions.
The statu quo challenged
Since September 11th the region has been experiencing a series of shocks. The region has been confronted by US reaction to 9-11; it has been shocked by US media reactions against Saudi Arabia. It is surprised to see that a change of regime in Iraq is possible. The region is also trying to come to terms with the new conditions in Palestine and in the Arab world.
The Shocks come from many directions. On the one hand, much of the region has not absorbed the significance of September 11th and its true impact. It is still measuring the event through the same prism it measures Algeria’s civil war or Lebanon’s previous civil strife. On the other hand, the region still sees politics in conspiratorial terms and not as actual power struggles between real actors. The region also suffers from a lack of democratic expression, which makes it hard for intellectuals who have opposing views to come forward with different perspectives. The region is taken more by the French position at the Security Council without any clear understanding of the storm gathering momentum in the region. Therefore, the region seems to be frozen in its reactions, not able to take the initiative as the war gets closer and closer to every home in the Gulf and in the region.
This is an era when the statu quo is being greatly challenged. The challenge has become so overwhelming that an old method and a traditional school of politics and governance in the region cannot lead any more. This puts the Arab world in the midst of one of its most serious transitions and in the midst of another round of confusing truths and storms.
Today’s Arab States are challenged by a global condition to deal with terrorism. They are also challenged to support change of regime in Iraq and in a different way in the Palestinian occupied territories. Arab Sates are being challenged to reconsider ideological orientation, and are being challenged to pressure extremist ideologies into re-examining their orientation. Arab radicals are challenged as well to re-examine their ideological base; and Islamists are being challenged to reconsider their interpretations of Islam and tolerance.
No one in the Arab world can claim that his ideology or policy is that of a winner. The Arab nationalists of the fifties and sixties failed to bring about their vision, so did the radical Islamists of the eighties and nineties who failed to bring about the true Islamic state including Iran. The states and governments of the region failed to bring about progress, development and meaningful participation as they pursued a power driven policy and dried all other creative resources. One main area of success must be seen: All states succeeded beyond belief in staying in power and in freezing political change.
If History is of any guide to us the transition to democracy, economic development and human rights are all paved with complex processes and difficult choices. Today the Arab world is facing a pre-democratic moment. This moment may produce the momentum needed for a new process. A new process will pose extreme challenges and will not end History. It will only begin a new chapter. If the Spanish and Italian experiments with democratisation and development are of any guide: such transitions are long and complex.
Director of the Centre of Strategic and Future Studies at Kuwait University