Can the Arabs love their land?

Tarek Osman
21 May 2006

The meeting of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Sharm al-Sheikh from 20-22 May 2006 – whose theme was "the promise of a new generation" – witnessed a flurry of can-do initiatives and declarations of optimism highlighting reform and progress in the region. It is always a pity to rain on someone else's parade, but a more intimate look at the current social and psychological realities of the Arab world suggest a different picture that should be the concern of people in Europe and the United States as well as of the Arabs themselves.

In January 2006, openDemocracy published an article by Jim Lederman, about the process of political succession in Israel in the post Ariel Sharon era. In the article, Lederman cited a survey conducted in 2005 that showed that 89% of the Israelis would want to live nowhere else. Israelis are happy where they are, according to the survey, because they believe they "are in control of their lives" (see "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy", 16 January 2006). The author also alludes to a BBC survey conducted in September 2005 that found that, out of sixty-eight societies, Israelis come first with respect to "trusting their military and police to defend them, their intellectuals to offer ideas and critiques, and even their business leaders to run their economic life".

This is interesting – especially if you come from one of Israel's neighbouring Arab countries. Those neighbours (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine) are no beacons of human satisfaction and content; they all – without exception – suffer from a significant brain-drain, amply elaborated on in the 2004 Arab Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). According to many observers, most prominent of whom is Nawal El Saadawi in her recently published articles on the "current state of Arab societies", the brain-drain is a consequence of the "alienation within".

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian investment banker based in Bahrain. He writes a fortnightly column in Business Today Egypt, Egypt's largest English-language business magazine

Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

"Egypt: who's on top?" (June 2005)

"Egypt's crawl from autocracy"
(August 2005)

"Hosni Mubarak: what the Pharaoh is like" (January 2006)

The contrast is sharp. One country (Israel's) people are amongst the most confident in the world in their political and economic system and are keen to stay where they are; while their historical enemy (the Arabs) – at least for the better part of the 20th century – are losing faith in their systems, and eagerly or resignedly withdrawing from them, internally and externally.

The reasons for the very different emotional – even psychological – stances of people in the Arab world compared to those in Israel are evident:

  • among the 280 million Arabs there is a dramatic gap between the few haves and the masses of have-nots, leaving millions on the streets of Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, with ruined aspirations and a sense of deprivation
  • there is a staggering level of corruption that transforms poverty into a potent mix of anger and alienation
  • there is a widespread feeling of impotence: knowing that you cannot affect a change in the defunct socio-economic environment in which you live because of the usurpation of political rights, and the crushing of political wills
  • there is humiliation in daily experiences, in what ought to be simple encounters such as transportation and buying basic products
  • there is an overarching sense of historical defeat – whose causes the 70% of Arabs who are under 35 years have done nothing to contribute to, but whose consequences weigh heavily on them every day.

One condition, seven consequences

If these "why" factors are accepted, the crucial question then becomes: so what? What are the results of having millions of young men and women with shattered dreams, alienated from the political-economic systems in which they live, and a realisation that they cannot change their life? What are the consequences of a situation in which millions of young Arabs want to "opt out"?

The immediate answer is: not pretty. And I am not talking about men blowing themselves up by crashing planes into buildings. I am thinking of the development – or rather, the absence of development – of the societies in which the repressed millions live.

Here are seven aspects of this blocking of social progress:

  • the privileged few who, by virtue of birth or talent, have managed to achieve world-class education – and as such are able to compete in the global market for talent – leave. In the case of Egypt alone, more than 800,000 graduates now live in western Europe and the United States, according to a 2004-05 estimate published by the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies
  • the privileged few decide not to return; or at best, if and when they return, they isolate themselves in investor-friendly free zones – new, spacious, rich suburbs and immaculately designed seaside resorts
  • the privileged few start to feel alienated themselves – yet in a different way from the enormous numbers of poor people with restricted lives. The privileged start to see themselves as "different", "apart", even "above" the environments surrounding them. They gradually lose their identification with their societies; their physical detachment grows into an emotional one
  • the millions of regular citizens start to fragment into two further groups: an ambitious minority that has the determination to achieve social mobility, and the mundane majority that plays by the confined rules of the socio-political system. The latter exerts the utmost effort from morning to evening to secure basic life-needs, then succumbs to the depressing night-time reality in front of the 9 o'clock television news (perhaps while inhaling shisha in the local café)
  • in between the few who manage to emerge from the mayhem and the majority who live it, the middle class gets ever more squeezed
  • the squeezing of the middle class results in a crumbling intellectual life, a vacuum at the heart of the socio-political system that ought to be generating dynamism, and a polarity in a social fabric lacking the crucially important middle-string to hold the whole thing together
  • a disillusioned society, slowly but steadily losing its potential for collective advancement.

This is not the Arabs' problem. It is that of the whole world. The almost-daily immigration attempts by frustrated Arab youths, willing to risk their lives in order to arrive at the southern shores of France, Italy or Spain is a manifestation of how Europe is a central part of their predicament. The United States's strategic interests in the region make it involved. The Arab world, by virtue of its sheer size, geography, demography, and resources cannot be ignored, left on its own to survive or drown.

There is no elixir that would kill the virus that has dominated the Arab world for decades – neither lukewarm American attempts to spread democracy, nor European initiatives to inject economy-stimulating funds. The solution can only be structural. A wholesale transformation of institutions of governance, law and civil society is needed to realise the promise of a trapped generation.

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