The real enemy of Arab societies

Regimes: Authoritarian rulers know that their survival depends on the backwardness and underdevelopment of their societies.

July 21, 2002|By Ehsan Ahari | Ehsan Ahari,GLOBAL BEAT SYNDICATE

NORFOLK, Va. - September's terrorist attacks on the United States have triggered a debate not only here but in the Arab Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world about "why they hate us."

But because free debates are not allowed in authoritarian societies, the international community has not gotten the real flavor of that debate.

The United Nations' Human Development Program - the UNDP - has done the world a great service by commissioning a report prepared by a group of Arab intellectuals on the state of Arab societies. It doesn't answer the "why they hate us" question, but it does underscore what's wrong with their politics and societies and who the real enemy is.

The West, the report says, is not the enemy. Rather it is the nations' authoritarian rule and the perpetrators of it. Here are some highlights of that report:

The 22-nation Arab League (280 million people) produced a combined gross domestic product of $531.2 billion in 1999 - a total less than that of Spain.

The average Arab citizen's overall income was 13.9 percent that of the average citizen of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

Only 0.6 percent of the population uses the Internet, and the personal computer penetration rate is 1.2 percent.

Overall investment in research and development by Arab governments does not exceed 0.5 percent of the gross national product.

Unemployment across Arab countries is about 15 percent, "among the highest rates in the developing world."

Manufacturing exports have been stagnant and private capital flows have lagged behind those of other regions.

Even in oil and oil-related products, which account for more than 70 percent of export from the region, the rate of growth was 1.5 percent per year.

"No generation of young Arabs has been as large as today's."

Despite recent progress made on the status of women, "more than half of Arab women are still illiterate." They also suffer from "inequality of opportunity in employment-status, wages, and gender-based occupational segregation."

Authoritarian rulers of the Arab world know that their survival depends on the continued backwardness and acute economic underdevelopment of their societies. Thus, as the rest of the world becomes enlightened with the information revolution, and reaps the benefits of increasing globalization and industrialization, Arab countries remain largely untouched by those phenomena. The policies of these authoritarian regimes are responsible for that.

Continuation of the status quo is not acceptable, and it only postpones inevitable and cataclysmic changes in most, if not all, Arab countries. It's not possible for people to suffer endlessly, especially when they see on television how globalization and industrialization benefit the standards of living of their European and Asian counterparts.

The only realistic option is managed democratic change from within, according to the report, and here, the United States, as the only declared global proselytizer for democracy, may be able to play a limited and low-key role.

But if the introduction of democracy in the Palestinian-administered territories becomes a successful reality, Jordan might be next. Lebanon also stands a high probability of becoming a democracy, because it doesn't have a strongman like Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Syria, under Bashar Assad, is not yet the repressive dictatorship it was under his father, Hafez el Assad.

In North Africa, Morocco might be a leading candidate for managed democratic change. But the remaining states of that region are likely to continue under authoritarian repression for the foreseeable future.

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Col. Muammar el Kadafi are grooming their sons to succeed them.

Sadly, hereditary dictatorship is a longstanding phenomenon in the Arab Middle East.

That leaves the Gulf monarchies as the next region challenged with managing change. The Persian Gulf monarchies are not uniform in their practice of authoritarian rule. Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait are experimenting with limited democracy, and discreet encouragement from Washington to expand the scope of those experiments might not be a bad idea.

Saudi Arabia, the largest state of the Arabian Peninsula, remains an archetype of authoritarian rule. It is also a country where Islamic orthodoxy is extremely well entrenched. So opening up the Saudi polity will be a great challenge, and only the ruling elite of that country may be able to bring that about.

As the U.N. report makes clear, the toughest obstacle to change is authoritarian rule, which is the real enemy and potentially an equally powerful force for change. Given the magnitude of development-related challenges facing Arab countries, the current regimes had better become the region's initiators and managers, or they will be swept aside.

Political change in the Arab world is coming. But will the real enemy of change be wise enough to transform itself into the leader and manager of that change - or the target of those who lead the revolutions?

Ehsan Ahari is a Norfolk-based strategic analyst who writes extensively on the Middle East and Gulf region.

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