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THE IMPRESSIVE ARRAY OF socio-economic statistics marshaled in the Arab Human Development Report 2002, statistics that were supported and seconded by the subsequent Report a year later, tell the story of the stagnating, "under developing" world of the Arabs. Of the major regions of the world, only Sub-Sahara Africa has similar characteristics. The Report describes and analyses this situation without discussion of the underlying reasons.

Nevertheless, the description answers many questions and fills many gaps in the knowledge about this region that seems to continue to undergo a condition of traumatized transitionality much longer than any other region in the world. Again, the Report does not go into the reasons, leaving much to the interpretation of the reader. Are the Arabs genetically deficient as some racist hate-mongers sometimes hint? Are there some cultural factors behind this continued stagnating condition? Or is it simply the fault of the largely authoritarian political establishments in the various countries of the region? The Report does mention bright spots here and there, yet these remain what they are, bright spots in a largely dark scene.

The Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in the closing years of the eighteenth century was the first contact of the Arab masses with modernity after several centuries of decadence. Since then, over two hundred years have passed, and while improvements have occurred in the living conditions of some, these improvements, the Report amply demonstrates, remain lagging far behind expectations.

No doubt the combination of external threats and internal challenges are much to blame. But then, why has Japan, which commenced its modernization nation-building efforts with the Meiji regime, almost seventy years after the efforts of Mohammad Ali of Egypt, is where it is on the modernization scale, while Egypt, indeed the entire Arab World, is still where it is?

Professor Shamlan al-Issa of Kuwait University agreed with the assessment of an Arab foreign minister quoting him as saying that the report was an "exposure of the ourah, [the shame] of the Arabs [and a] washing of our dirty linen" in public. (1) The Professor added that was why the Report was dedicated in Amman, and not at the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo where the Secretary General refused to hold the dedication ceremony.

A Jordanian economist echoes these same thoughts adding that the Report has been used by enemies of the Arabs to "insult" the Ummah, to emphasize its "backwardness" and to use it as an excuse to interfere in Arab internal affairs. The Report, he added, focused on the "negatives" and ignored the "positives" in Arab development efforts over the past fifty years. Furthermore, he continues, the timing of the Report is unfortunate since it coincides with American desires to manufacture a new Middle East that will serve its interests as well as the needs of the security of Israel. (2)

However much truth may exist in the criticisms, it does not, however, hide the reality of the existing conditions of the region, nor the terrible implications for the future. Should these conditions persist as may be inferred from the Report, the region seems to be condemned to a future that is a continuation of the past, with even further regression and instability.

There is truth in the assertion that the Report received wide external attention by both the scholarly and the official communities. But then why has it received so little attention in the region itself and been nearly totally ignored by Arab governments?

The answer may lie in the fact that the Report hints at the responsibility of the political establishments in the Arab World: The Arab governments themselves.

Each one of the authors of these articles is prominent in his/her field. As guest editor of this issue, I deliberately left it up to them to discuss any aspect of the Report they wished to discuss, or to discuss it in its entirety. The objective of this random approach was to encourage further research on the contemporary socio-economic conditions of the Arab World. And, in spite of the fact that the Report has been largely ignored by Arab governments who should be more concerned, its historical significance will increase with the passage of time. Its weight derives from its eminent authors as well as its origin from one of the most prestigious departments of the United Nations system.

Read in its entirety there is no escaping the fact that it represents a bleak picture of Arab governments' developmental efforts since their inception. Individually and collectively these efforts, with infrequent successes, remain not only uneven, but worse still have, in some cases, caused further distortions and even increased instability.

The pressures from without: colonialism, Israel and the Palestine Problem, world Zionism or even the occupation of Iraq, remain contributing factors. But these do not absolve the Arabs from their responsibility in the failing conditions. A prominent Arab journalist writes that ... "no one in this world buys the idea that our underdevelopment is solely because of these reasons ... We are civilizationally and democratically underdeveloped because we are underdeveloped and we should look for other reasons" for this condition. (3) That is a harsh statement yet it expresses the frustration that some Arabs feel with the situation. For, from the middle of the nineteenth century, Arab intellectuals have advocated reforms regarding knowledge, women, democratization and general socio-economic development, and yet whatever achievements have been made, they remain frail and uneven.

This is on the Pan-Arab level where the population is in one place while the major wealth earning resources are in another, and on the national level where even the cities, especially the capitals, contain neighborhoods in various stages of development, some even inhabiting different historical time zones altogether.

The situation is just as bleak on the democratization scale with almost all governments, largely alienated from their people. Democracy remains a stranger to the region with few, indeed, very few exceptions where the democratic process is always under the threat of authoritarianism raising its head again. In any case, it remains mostly a democracy granted from above rather than earned from below. Every Arab government has proven itself, time and again, stronger than its people. Most Arab regimes revolve around the person of the Ruler at the top who, in most cases, is referred to by his local media as al-Mulham, the inspired one. The debate over human rights, including the empowerment of women while discussed in earnest by the intellectuals, remains largely, however, a debate.

The ideas of Rifa'ah al-Tahtawi, Rashid Rida, Al-Rikabi, Shaikh Mohammad Abdu, Shibli Shumayyil, Salamah Musa and others of the nineteenth century as well as the works and calls of twentieth century political reformers and movements remain ideas that somehow rarely take root in political action. Just imagine that it is only in certain parts of the Arab World that the question is raised as to whether a woman can drive a car, and perhaps only in this region does a question arise as to whether the entire culture is compatible with democracy. The resistance to real change in the mode of thinking or to the rational approach to life problems remains strong. Perhaps the Arabs should heed the advice of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to his people: "change or perish."

Thanks to the United Nations Development Program and to the authors whose thoughts and efforts will generate a general debate. Special thanks to HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal, President of the Club of Rome and the Arab Thought Forum, for participating in this very important and timely debate. And thanks to Professor Janice Terry, editor of the Arab Studies Quarterly for initiating the idea of this special issue.


(1.) Professor Al-Issa was reportedly quoting the Foreign Minister of Jordan. See al-Ittihad, 26 October 2003.

(2.) The Jordanian economist, Dr. Fahed Fanek also uses the phrase, "Washing our dirty linen in public," See al-Rai, 19 May 2003.

(3.) Al-Rai, 6 March 2004.

Kamel S. Abu Jaber was formerly Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences at the University of Jordan. He also served as Minister of National Economy and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan.
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Author:Abu Jaber, Kamel S.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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