Arabs face stubborn obstacles to social change

Ghassan Rubeiz
* Published in Lebanon’s THE DAILY STAR on August 17.

Arabs face stubborn obstacles to social change. They recognize their problems but do not settle on alternatives; and they are worried about replacing their autocratic political regimes. Change, they fear, may lead to even worse circumstances. Responding to the challenge, Arab scholars have collaborated over the past seven years in examining the causes of societal underachievement. They have studied a range of issues: governance, the economy, gender, poverty, education, environment, health, and conflict. Their conclusions, published starting in 2002 in successive UN Human Development Reports, under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program, have been seminal but also short on effective action for reform.

The UNDP reports have forecast continued deterioration in the wellbeing of the Arab community. The major findings of the 2009 report were released on July 21. The document revolves around the concept of personal insecurity. Its underlying thesis is that citizens facing intense personal stress can not change their circumstances for the better.

The findings of the 2009 report spell danger and call for intervention. Arab regimes are in constant search for legitimacy and do not receive much support from their peoples in this regard. Arab countries score low on political freedoms and high on corruption. Regimes threaten the security of their citizens. The legal environment for non-governmental organizations is too restrictive. In six countries political parties are utterly forbidden. Emergency law is declared to justify police-state activities. Elections are predictable and manipulated. Rulers stay in office for long periods.

The fertility rate in the Arab world has dropped in recent years, but it is still too high. Rapid population growth in the region is straining the provision of basic services. Today’s Arab population is 330 million, with 60 percent under the age of 25. In six years 400 million people will be sharing dwindling water and food resources. Desertification is eroding cultivable land. The desert has already “swallowed two thirds of the land.”

Women deserve a better position both at home, in the work place, and in political circles. The law discriminates against them. Societal norms are gender prohibitive and economic and political opportunities are limited for females. Domestic violence goes unnoticed, while reporting abuse is discouraged. In low-income Arab societies, one of two adult women does not read or write. Children and other minority groups are poorly protected.

The economies of the region are not diversified: oil represents 70 percent of exports, while GDP per capita grew by a negligible 0.5 percent between 1980 and 2004. Two out of five Arabs live in poverty, a trend on the increase despite vast oil wealth. Three trillion dollars have been invested in ways that have not created jobs and brought adequate returns. By the year 2020, 51 million new jobs will be required. Every other young man wants to leave for a better life abroad. Current unemployment is about 15 percent.

Oil, Israel, sectarian upbringing and competing loyalty to tribe and family make this region prone to political conflict and war. The Middle East suffers from several local and international conflicts. It has the largest volume of refugees and displaced people in the world, at 17 million. There is occupation in Palestine, foreign intervention in Iraq, and civil war in Sudan, Yemen and Somalia. Too many regimes depend on outside allies for security. Arab armies are mobilized to protect rulers rather than the ruled. Spending on defense is disproportionate.

When it comes to solutions the latest human development report is timid. It calls on politicians and societies to respect rule of law, protect the environment, and diversify the economy. The report also calls for equal rights for women, and transformative education and health care as a right for all citizens. Finally, it calls for the use of effective ways to liberate the region from occupations and the enhancement of security for all citizens.

The diagnosis of underdevelopment does not lead to strategic solutions. The four reports which preceded the latest one also lacked a pragmatic blueprint for action. For effective reform to occur two basic questions come to mind. The first is, where does reform start? Heads of Arab governments are not getting the message from these reports. It is true that all areas of reform are important and the approach must be comprehensive. But it is also true that governance impacts on all aspects of reform. Good government is a requirement for a multi-faceted program of social and political change. The report must give Arabs practical hints on how regimes can change.

The second question is of a different order. Why is the role of religion in politics a relatively minor aspect of all five reports? Among the many causes freezing social and political reform in the Arab world is the dominance of religious authorities. Such authorities – through their pervasive institutions of socialization and their control over personal-status issues – strongly influence political identity, support tribal authority, define strict limits for women, and restrict intellectual inquiry. The UNDP reports should tackle the religious factor with more courage. Reducing the hold of organized religion on politics and social change – and I do not mean inhibiting faith or spirituality – will have a multiplier effect on reform.

Arab societies that give strong leadership roles to religious authorities face more difficulties in state-building than those societies that limit clerical power to spiritual matters. If this generalization is empirically substantiated it should lead us to forceful conclusions for reform.

Might the next annual report focus on ways to effectively approach regime-change and liberation of political systems from religious authority? In the Arab world the ruler is the pilot and the cleric is the co-pilot.

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