The Tragic Failure of the Arab World, and Why It's Bad for Israel

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?

Shimon Shamir
Shimon Shamir
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The people have the power now, which hasn't translated into better management: A protest in Jordan (illustration).
The people have the power now, which hasn't translated into better management: A protest in Jordan (illustration).Credit: AP
Shimon Shamir
Shimon Shamir

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.”

Knowledge deficit

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.

Protesters, with the phrase 'no to sectarianism' written on their foreheads and Lebanese flags painted on their faces demonstrate near the Justice Palace in Beirut, February 27, 2011.Credit: Reuters

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.

An undated photo of Islamic State fighters from a militant website.Credit: AP

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.

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