Text size

It's not easy living in an Arab state. Egyptians stay away from government hospitals; illiteracy among women in some countries can top 50 percent A new United Nations report presents a bleak and sometimes scary picture of a citizen's life in the Arab countries. One out of every five people in the region lives on less than $2 a day; the illiteracy rates are very high; and, for the most part, public health services cannot be relied on at all.

The report notes that during the past seven years some 78,000 homes were demolished or damaged in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The infrastructure suffered damage to the tune of $728 million. Economic growth during those years was negative, standing at minus 2.9 percent annually. About a fourth of the workforce in the territories is unemployed. Yearly per capita income stabilized at $1,178 in 2007, about a third less than in the peak year of 1999.

These figures are a small sample from the scores of charts, the thousands of numbers and the 256 pages of the Arab Human Development Report 2009, which the UN prepared during the past two years and published last week. It serves as an index to examine the development and progress of what was defined as "human security."

In the context of the detailed survey, which is stirring up controversy even among the 90 researchers who participated in the writing of the report, questions were examined that touch upon the regimes' relations with their citizens, the sense of security felt by Arab citizens with respect to the regime and their confidence in the security services alongside questions about the status of women both in private life and vis-a-vis the regime.

Despite the pages laden with dry numbers, some of the questions cannot be answered at all: Basic data is lacking, and some of the data in the report is correct only as of 2005. However, the overall picture is bleak and sometimes scary. It must be a cause for concern not only in the Arab countries but also in the West, which provides refuge to those fleeing in fear from the Arab regimes or serves as a source of income. And, in the worst case, the West constitutes a target for terror attacks.

Civilian security in the report is not defined only as security vis-a-vis military or occupying forces. This issue has dropped to eighth place on the list of areas covered by the report. Indeed, personal security needs a new definition in view of the fact that the Arab countries will need about 50 million new jobs in the coming year, and when the illiteracy rate among women in some countries exceeds 50 percent, the courts see "damage to family honor" as a reason for lenience toward those who kill women. And then there is the statistic that one out of every five people in the region is living on less than $2 a day.

Illiteracy reflects a population's ability to read and write and the functioning of the education system, but it can also cost lives. Not being able to read and write can affect access to medical care or play a role in female circumcision, births in unhygienic conditions and the absence of sex education for religious or cultural reasons. When one adds to all this scorn for the health systems on the part of the regime, illiteracy becomes fatal. According to the report, in 2004, Egypt spent about $250 per capita on health services. Its situation is reasonable relative to Syria, which spent only $100, or Sudan - less than $50. Ostensibly, Egypt is also doing middling well with respect to government spending on health care relative to the gross national product, about 6.5 percent. It cannot compete with Lebanon, which spends more than the world average on health care; the problem isn't with the percentages of the budget or the GNP, but rather with the level of service.

In Egypt, a citizen knows that he must on no account go to a government hospital. He will make every effort to find a private doctor or obtain medications from a European source on the black market and not take recourse to the local pharmaceutical industry.

Another question is where does government expenditure on health go? The answer is not explicit in the report, but it is known: The bureaucracy takes the lion's share; medical R&D are the least of priorities.

There are other examples in the report of the absence of personal security in terms of civil rights such as the situation seen in the figures on arrests without trial; malnutrition and poverty rates; and the number of countries that do not allow the establishment of political parties.

From the sea of data another distortion emerges. The concept of "the Middle East" does not describe something that really exists. There are huge differences with respect to investment in education and health, as the report shows, between countries like Saudia Arabia or the Emirates at one extreme and Sudan or Yemen at the other. There is a similar huge difference between Egypt and Kuwait on questions of human rights, and between Tunisia or Libya and Saudi Arabia with respect to the status of women. A new definition is required for this region that for generations has been perceived as homogenous in terms of society, values and behavior.

China's news in Arabic

From this week on, it is possible to listen to the Chinese news in Arabic. The China Central broadcasting company has decided to add Arabic to French and English, languages in which has been broadcasting for some time. Its aim is "to build a cultural bridge between China and the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa."

The broadcasts will apparently be produced by the Al Hura channel, which was established with American funding around the time of the Gulf War, in cooperation with and under the supervision of a Chinese broadcasting station. This year China is also encouraging tourism to Arab countries. Oman, Morocco, and Syria have been added to the list of preferred countries for tourism, to which China is encouraging its citizens to travel. Add to this the decision by Saudi Arabia to award a Chinese company the construction of 200 new schools in the kingdom. The forecast is that trade between China and Saudi Arabia will amount to about $20 billion in 2010. It is possible to conclude who will be the next power to set the rules in the Middle East.