The Tragic Failure of the Arab World, and Why It’s Bad for Israel. By Shimon Shamir. Haaretz, January 2, 2016.
Following the collapse of “Arab socialism” and demise of the “Arab Spring,” is there any hope that the cradle of civilization will become a superpower once more?
Following the collapse of “Arab socialism” and demise of the “Arab Spring,” is there any hope that the cradle of civilization will become a superpower once more?
The 21st century is becoming increasingly characterized by the tragedies befalling the Arab world. Tribal, ethnic, regional, religious and other forces are fighting each other for power, while Arab states seem to be coming apart at the seams or even completely crumbling. The historic rift between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam remains as divisive as ever, and jihadists are gaining footholds throughout Arab lands. They give rise to questions about their implications for Arab states in the modern age.
Ever since the Western world first burst into the Arab-Islamist sphere, more than 200 years ago, Arabs have been tormented by the question of why they – the bearers of such a magnificent cultural heritage – now find themselves at such a disadvantage. They have struggled to understand how they could possibly compete with more developed nations.
To hope to achieve this goal, they needed to address four challenges: First, to create sovereign states with functioning national institutions that depend upon cooperative citizens. Second, to develop the capacity to produce technology, which would secure them a competitive position in the world economy. Third, to handle Islam in a way that would instill values to bring society together – like common identity and solidarity – but also neutralize the violent elements that look to restore the ways of the past. Fourth, to shake off the neocolonialist influence and involvement of superpowers, and act independently in the international arena.
These tasks became relevant when the Arab states gained independence, about midway through the 20th century – or, at least, it seemed that they had started to confront these challenges then. In some of the Arab states, revolutionary Nasserist-Ba’athist regimes came to power, and they assumed these burdens. They founded national institutions and created educational systems to indoctrinate the people and enhance the individual’s affinity to the state. They nationalized production, built industrial plants and sent the people to universities, in the hope of advancing their country’s scientific and technological capabilities. They called it “Arab socialism.”
Islam was cultivated as a symbol, but the regimes themselves were secular and kept the Islamic movement subdued. They dismantled the foreign military bases and scrapped foreign military strategies like 1955’s Baghdad Pact, which established METO – a treaty organization (modeled after NATO) that included Britain and Middle Eastern states, but which was dissolved in 1979. The newly independent Arab states sought to establish themselves collectively as a world power and aligned with the African-Asian bloc; they labeled it a kind of “positive neutrality.”
The Arab reality today is very different. The leaders’ glaring mistake was they believed that in this region, “the societies might be weak, but the states are strong.” It transpired that the systems of intimidation and enforcement did not reflect strength, but instead weakness. When the upheavals began, and the non-state factions became more powerful and began preaching a new reality, some of the states collapsed, while others are struggling to maintain their stability.
From today’s perspective, it isn’t hard to explain the phenomenon. It seems that the Arab states, to varying degrees, were hollow entities; their conceptual frameworks were weak. They were created during the modern age and had no names – because such entities did not exist prior to their establishment. The classical Arabic lexicon did not include a word for “state” or “nation.” In its place, the word meaning “dynasty,” or ruling family, was adapted for the purpose. The concept of a nation became synonymous with the idea of a dynasty that rises and falls. Thus, large swaths of the population backed the idea that when the regime falls, the state is no more.
In the West, the thinking tends to be that the toppling of an authoritarian regime might lead to the establishment of a democracy. However, bitter experience has shown that overthrowing the rulers prompts the whole system to collapse, and then the alternative is chaos. This is also the root cause of the failure of the youth that led the Arab Spring. It turned out that while it’s possible to topple a dictator, the proper foundations for fostering democracy in the aftermath – both conceptually and institutionally – were lacking.
There is no escaping the conclusion that, at this stage, most Arab states can only function with some level of stability under authoritarian regimes or traditional monarchies. The challenge of creating nations similar to those in the modern West has yet to be fulfilled.
Similar failures have occurred on the economic front, too. True, there was economic development in some Arab nations that led to prosperity and in some cases even great wealth (Qatar, for example, is the richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita, while Kuwait is ranked fourth). Arab states need foreign currency to import essential food items, but they don’t receive enough from the selling of natural resources, tourism, people working overseas and, for Egypt, from the Suez Canal.
Arab products are barely represented in the global marketplace. Compare Egypt and South Korea, where the economic conditions were similar when both nations achieved independence. South Korea currently exports everything from high-tech electronics to cars and boats: as a result, its economy is five times the size of Egypt’s.
The dizzying growth of the global economy is based primarily on knowledge, and countries that cannot match the rate of development get left behind. In most Arab countries, the level of scientific and technological know-how does not meet the levels required to support advanced, innovative means of production. A United Nations report in 2002, “Arab Human Development,” called this the “knowledge deficit,” and determined that this was one of three factors hindering development in the Arab nations. Knowledge in the Arab world is not up to par because their schools and universities place too great an emphasis on memorization and rote learning.
The knowledge deficit stems from the fact that openness to the world is low among Arab states. For example, the number of translated books in the Arab world is exceedingly low: A 2003 UN report, “Building a Knowledge Society,” found that, on average, only 4.4 translated books were published per million people between 1981 and 1985 in the Arab states, while the corresponding rate in Hungary was 519 books, and in Spain 920.
Even when Arab states open up to the world and import technologies, the benefits are limited. Global technologies become obsolete very quickly, so those not participating in their production can’t develop effective alternatives. Creativity and ingenuity are so critical these days, but these qualities are lacking in the Arab world. And despite their extremely modern image, even the Gulf states import technology from around the world and the locals have no stake in production.
According to the same 2003 UN report, all of the Arab states combined registered only 370 patents in the United States between 1980 and 2000, while Israel alone registered more than 7,000 and South Korea registered over 16,000. The number of researchers per million people in the Arab world sits at 300, while the global average is 900. The result of all of this is that unemployment rates among young people in the Arab world are among the highest on the planet – between 30 to 50 percent.
Failure to tackle radical Islam
Even the clampdown on Islam in Arab countries did not work so well. Islamist factions weren’t eliminated, despite numerous efforts to that end. Gamal Abdel Nasser sent thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members to jail, as did other nations. Yet comparing the demographics of Islamists at the end of the 20th century and today shows a staggering rate of growth: In 2000, Islamist groups were small, underground factions with limited capabilities; by 2015, they had become large forces with military capabilities and cutting-edge weaponry, and were firmly established throughout Arab lands. They challenge not only local governments, but also the foreign regimes that support those governments. The last 15 years have seen a series of mega-terrorist attacks throughout the world – from the September 11 attacks in the United States to the recent massacre in Paris. During the last five years alone, there has been a stark increase in the number of casualties from Islamic terrorism in various nations – in some cases up more than tenfold in comparison to previous years.
It’s possible that the failure to deal with radical Islam also stems from the fact that attempts to do so were always brutal. Not enough attention was paid to the fact that Islamism (also known as Political Islam) is not only terrorism, but that it represents first and foremost an idea – an idea that is very attractive to many Muslims, especially during times of regional conflict and strife. Many nations failed because they did not see the need to pose an alternative idea, despite the fact that such an idea existed.
During the first half of the 20th century, liberal, humanist and rational streams appeared within Islam – streams that separated religion and state, and found their own intellectual expression. Unfortunately, most Arab state regimes rejected these ideas, choosing instead to embrace a combination that had the worst of all options. The Arab nations could not find a courageous leader capable of sparking the necessary transformation for repelling brutal Islamism and creating a new order that marched with the times.
Also, the aspirations of the first generations to achieve independence went unrealized, and they were unable to prevent a situation in which the end of colonialism would create a vacuum and space for foreign influence. The first sign of this failure was already evident in the days of Nasser: He became the hero of the Arab world when he expelled 10,000 British soldiers from their bases in Egypt, but then quickly brought in 20,000 Soviet “military advisers” (who Anwar Sadat later expelled, in 1972).
The clear turning point was the Gulf War in 1991, when Arab armies fought as part of a coalition commanded and led mostly by Americans, against an Arab leader who was the “Arab bulwark” against Iran. And that’s how it continued: NATO forces were employed against Muammar Gadhafi in Libya; the Iranians are making excursions into Iraq and Syria, as are the Turks; the Russians are intervening in the Syrian civil war on President Bashar Assad’s side; France is asking fellow European Union states to aid in the fight against the Islamic State; and the United States, which had seemingly retreated from the arena, is being pulled back into the fray in both Iraq and Syria.
In Arab states, the regional wars are fierce and the number of casualties over recent decades has reached the millions. Huge waves of refugees are abandoning their countries, fleeing from death and destruction. The refugees mostly express utter despair for life in their homeland.
In a bleak leader article regarding the state of the Arab world published in The Economist (“The Tragedy of the Arabs,” July 5, 2014) , the writer laments the fact that a “civilization that used to lead the world is in ruins,” and declared that the Arab peoples are “in a wretched state.” The remarks call to mind Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who was one of the first in Egypt to express support for reconciliation with Israel. He said that peace was justified because of the “need to rebuild civilization.”
Mahfouz knew what he was talking about. There’s no doubt that developments in the region affect Israel. It is a mistake to rejoice in the misfortunes of our neighbors, and praise ourselves for being “the villa in the jungle,” as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak once said. Our borders are not immune to the threats of violence raging around us, and we can get involved in our neighbors’ well-being.
The author is a professor emeritus of Middle Eastern History and former Israeli ambassador to both Egypt and Jordan.
The Tragedy of the Arabs. The Economist, July 5, 2014.
A civilisation that used to lead the world is in ruins—and only the locals can rebuild it.
A THOUSAND years ago, the great cities of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo took turns to race ahead of the Western world. Islam and innovation were twins. The various Arab caliphates were dynamic superpowers—beacons of learning, tolerance and trade. Yet today the Arabs are in a wretched state. Even as Asia, Latin America and Africa advance, the Middle East is held back by despotism and convulsed by war.
Hopes soared three years ago, when a wave of unrest across the region led to the overthrow of four dictators—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen—and to a clamour for change elsewhere, notably in Syria. But the Arab spring’s fruit has rotted into renewed autocracy and war. Both engender misery and fanaticism that today threaten the wider world.
Why Arab countries have so miserably failed to create democracy, happiness or (aside from the windfall of oil) wealth for their 350m people is one of the great questions of our time. What makes Arab society susceptible to vile regimes and fanatics bent on destroying them (and their perceived allies in the West)? No one suggests that the Arabs as a people lack talent or suffer from some pathological antipathy to democracy. But for the Arabs to wake from their nightmare, and for the world to feel safe, a great deal needs to change.
The blame game
One problem is that the Arab countries’ troubles run so wide. Indeed, Syria and Iraq can nowadays barely be called countries at all. This week a brutal band of jihadists declared their boundaries void, heralding instead a new Islamic caliphate to embrace Iraq and Greater Syria (including Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and bits of Turkey) and—in due course—the whole world. Its leaders seek to kill non-Muslims not just in the Middle East but also in the streets of New York, London and Paris. Egypt is back under military rule. Libya, following the violent demise of Muammar Qaddafi, is at the mercy of unruly militias. Yemen is beset by insurrection, infighting and al-Qaeda. Palestine is still far from true statehood and peace: the murders of three young Israelis and ensuing reprisals threaten to set off yet another cycle of violence (see article). Even countries such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria, whose regimes are cushioned by wealth from oil and gas and propped up by an iron-fisted apparatus of state security, are more fragile than they look. Only Tunisia, which opened the Arabs’ bid for freedom three years ago, has the makings of a real democracy.
Islam, or at least modern reinterpretations of it, is at the core of some of the Arabs’ deep troubles. The faith’s claim, promoted by many of its leading lights, to combine spiritual and earthly authority, with no separation of mosque and state, has stunted the development of independent political institutions. A militant minority of Muslims are caught up in a search for legitimacy through ever more fanatical interpretations of the Koran. Other Muslims, threatened by militia violence and civil war, have sought refuge in their sect. In Iraq and Syria plenty of Shias and Sunnis used to marry each other; too often today they resort to maiming each other. And this violent perversion of Islam has spread to places as distant as northern Nigeria and northern England.
But religious extremism is a conduit for misery, not its fundamental cause (see article). While Islamic democracies elsewhere (such as Indonesia—see article) are doing fine, in the Arab world the very fabric of the state is weak. Few Arab countries have been nations for long. The dead hand of the Turks’ declining Ottoman empire was followed after the first world war by the humiliation of British and French rule. In much of the Arab world the colonial powers continued to control or influence events until the 1960s. Arab countries have not yet succeeded in fostering the institutional prerequisites of democracy—the give-and-take of parliamentary discourse, protection for minorities, the emancipation of women, a free press, independent courts and universities and trade unions.
The absence of a liberal state has been matched by the absence of a liberal economy. After independence, the prevailing orthodoxy was central planning, often Soviet-inspired. Anti-market, anti-trade, pro-subsidy and pro-regulation, Arab governments strangled their economies. The state pulled the levers of economic power—especially where oil was involved. Where the constraints of post-colonial socialism were lifted, capitalism of the crony, rent-seeking kind took hold, as it did in the later years of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Privatisation was for pals of the government. Virtually no markets were free, barely any world-class companies developed, and clever Arabs who wanted to excel in business or scholarship had to go to America or Europe to do so.
Economic stagnation bred dissatisfaction. Monarchs and presidents-for-life defended themselves with secret police and goons. The mosque became a source of public services and one of the few places where people could gather and hear speeches. Islam was radicalised and the angry men who loathed their rulers came to hate the Western states that backed them. Meanwhile a vast number of the young grew restless because of unemployment. Thanks to the electronic media, they were increasingly aware that the prospects of their cohort outside the Middle East were far more hopeful. The wonder is not that they took to the streets in the Arab spring, but that they did not do so sooner.
A lot of ruin
These wrongs cannot easily or rapidly be put right. Outsiders, who have often been drawn to the region as invaders and occupiers, cannot simply stamp out the jihadist cause or impose prosperity and democracy. That much, at least, should be clear after the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Military support—the supply of drones and of a small number of special forces—may help keep the jihadists in Iraq at bay. That help may have to be on permanent call. Even if the new caliphate is unlikely to become a recognisable state, it could for many years produce jihadists able to export terrorism.
But only the Arabs can reverse their civilisational decline, and right now there is little hope of that happening. The extremists offer none. The mantra of the monarchs and the military men is “stability”. In a time of chaos, its appeal is understandable, but repression and stagnation are not the solution. They did not work before; indeed they were at the root of the problem. Even if the Arab awakening is over for the moment, the powerful forces that gave rise to it are still present. The social media which stirred up a revolution in attitudes cannot be uninvented. The men in their palaces and their Western backers need to understand that stability requires reform.
Is that a vain hope? Today the outlook is bloody. But ultimately fanatics devour themselves. Meanwhile, wherever possible, the moderate, secular Sunnis who comprise the majority of Arab Muslims need to make their voices heard. And when their moment comes, they need to cast their minds back to the values that once made the Arab world great. Education underpinned its primacy in medicine, mathematics, architecture and astronomy. Trade paid for its fabulous metropolises and their spices and silks. And, at its best, the Arab world was a cosmopolitan haven for Jews, Christians and Muslims of many sects, where tolerance fostered creativity and invention.
Pluralism, education, open markets: these were once Arab values and they could be so again. Today, as Sunnis and Shias tear out each others’ throats in Iraq and Syria and a former general settles onto his new throne in Egypt, they are tragically distant prospects. But for a people for whom so much has gone so wrong, such values still make up a vision of a better future.