Two Futures of the Arab World

Arab World

Writing in YaleBooks, Tarek Osman pens a long essay on how the region might develop – or devolve. There is an extensive recap of current ills, of which I will highlight two that are less noticeable on the nightly news:

Arab educational institutions have been failing for decades now. No Arab university appears in any serious ranking of international higher-education. The Arab world’s contribution to global research and development, in almost any scientific field, is negligible.

A region with over 300 million people does not have a single newspaper, think tank, or artistic establishment with global reputation, let alone clout. As the public space disappears and the major institutions that used to act as bulwarks of art and culture have crumbled, the mechanisms that in the early and mid-20th century generated major advances in Arab thinking, exposure to the world, and literary and artistic creation have been weakened.

This has reduced the size of the Arab intelligentsia, which has traditionally absorbed and championed political development, economic reform and the empowerment of civil society.

And, after lamenting brain drain to the West:

The Arab world suffers another form of emigration: inward. Scores of talented and liberal Arabs have come to believe that working totally out of the traditional boundaries of their societies will produce better futures for themselves and their families.

Many are isolating themselves from their own societies. They work in enterprises (especially in high-end services) that are connected to the global economy, much more than to the economies of their own countries; they live in gated compounds or leafy suburbs, away from the region’s pulsating cities; they send their children to foreign schools and later western universities; and even in entertainment they ensconce themselves in House of Cards, Breaking Bad and indie cinema.

Mentally, emotionally, and in their values they are becoming aliens in their own societies.

But eventually he transitions to a point of hope. It is fueled by the fact that private enterprise is taking the place of the government-run economy, with knock-on benefits:

Modern digital communications have given them (and others in lower social strata) immense, and unprecedented, exposure to lifestyles and modes of social interaction in other parts of the world. Large groups of young Arabs now expect to live much more fulfilling lives than these of their parents.

This has not only fuelled consumerist tastes; it has also forced some of the region’s regimes to at least pay lip service to concepts such as rule of law, fighting corruption, diluting economic concentration of power, enhancing transparency in decision making and installing checks on executive authority.

It was not a coincidence that all the Arab constitutions which have been drafted or amended in the last four years, have enshrined these concepts. Implementing these remains elusive. But these concepts have been forced on the national agenda in many Arab countries and that many Arab states felt compelled to address them, is a valuable step.

But the author is quite aware that these positive developments will not cover over the many obvious problems of the region. But worse, they may wind up being limited to an isolated few — based on socio-economics, not geopolitics. If so, here is his warning to the world:

Apart from the fragmentation of large parts of the region, this scenario will herald a graver consequence. Here, the Arab world will become irrelevant to the vast majority of human advances in science and technology, and to the new illuminations in human thinking and development.

In this scenario, the Arab world will increasingly become a burden on the world, primarily exporting problems to the global community. Many in the world, and especially in the Arab world’s giant neighbour Europe, will try to distance themselves from it, seeing it not as “a sick man” (as the Ottoman Empire was described in the nineteenth century), but as a “bomb” that the world should always ensure it does not explode – at least because of its large demographics.

International interaction with the Arab world will range from economic assistance or realpolitik cooperation with its strong regimes – different efforts to avoid the explosion of the bomb.

Therefore, what must be done now? The author does not conclude with much more than his previous descriptions, but here is his hope:

The endeavours of the Arab world’s genuine private sector, civil society, and innovative young thinkers and artists can save the Arab world such a painful outcome.

Let us wish them well. But what, if anything, can the outside world offer now, rather than later?

Your ideas are welcome.

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