Commentary

The Arab World in Global Context

in Program

By Ellen Laipson and Amit Pandya – By 2015, the population of the Arab world will reach nearly 400 million, well more than double the 150 million of 1980. This huge increase is taking place while supplies of water and arable land are shrinking, available water is becoming polluted, desertification and inefficient economic growth are pushing people to the cities, and governments are having trouble coping with youth unemployment, and shortfalls in food security, nutrition, education and health.

Meanwhile, Arab economies remain bedeviled by structural weaknesses that contribute to the insecurity of their citizens. Certainly those Arab nations with oil and gas resources have a degree of prosperity, but their dependence on imports and services provided by foreign workers is not a stable situation, and their investments in developed countries are vulnerable due to the global recession. Notwithstanding the oil wealth of some, the region as a whole is dangerously vulnerable in terms of its real per capita income, the patterns of economic growth, the poor employment options, the persistence of poverty, and fragile social protections.

These are the principal trends identified in the Arab Human Development Report 2009, released this week. The report, entitled Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries, is the fifth in a series produced on the human condition in the Arab world since 2002. It has much to recommend it.

This report helps us avoid the conventional way of looking at the Middle East. Too often, we are preoccupied either with the military and security crises of the day such as Iraq, Somalia, Sudan or Palestine, or with the mega-trends of radical Islam and anti-Americanism that have created mutual antipathy and misunderstanding. The 2009 Report makes us focus on the looming environmental, economic and social challenges of this region, and about the capacities of states and societies to respond to those challenges. In other words, the worries of the Arab world are quite the same as those of the global human community, and the responses provide opportunities for cooperation, compassion and sharing of knowledge.

This report, like its predecessors that identified deficits of freedom, women’s empowerment and knowledge as the key factors that have arrested human development in the Middle East, was prepared under the aegis of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), but is not an official document. The reports are prepared by experts from the region and evince a degree of independence from official perspectives rare in reports of UN agencies. They reflect a deep demand for change and reform on the part of Arab thinkers, and do so with an intellectual honesty that has changed the way society and state in the Arab world interact. They are therefore cause for optimism.

The limitations of the Arab world’s “strong” states are obvious: regimes focus on their own survival and lag behind other regions of the world in recognizing that attention to the well-being of citizens is the surest way to achieve legitimacy. As the developed world and many developing countries embrace the notion of “human security” as a vital complement to “national” security, the Arab states seem overwhelmed by what it will take to improve education and public health, to protect water and land resources from climate change, and to create jobs and opportunities for their young populations. They see too often that their failure to provide the basic services that citizens everywhere expect their government to provide has created opportunities for non-state actors, sometimes even armed anti-state movements, to fill the gap and to gain political legitimacy.

Arab intellectuals are developing a new and more honest discourse about the area’s problems and their causes, even while they still see external factors, namely, the military occupation in Palestine and Iraq as organically linked to the region’s problems and an additional stress on human security. The debate over such linkage has grown a bit stale; it should not be in dispute that conflict and insecurity lead to the displacement of populations and have an adverse impact on economic activity and livelihoods. Most significantly, occupation and violence strengthen the appeal of militant violence and allows governments to justify authoritarian political measures. 

Like President Obama’s Cairo speech, this report mostly holds Arabs accountable for their future, and for improvements in governance. It raises, nonetheless, the issue of what useful role can outsiders play in a gradual, and hopefully peaceful, process of reform and change. Most of the natural resource policy challenges will require cooperation at the international level, and cannot be handled at the regional level alone. Climate change is the clearest example of a major threat to the future of the Arab world which it bears little responsibility for creating and little capacity to mitigate. While the Arab world is responsible for less than 5% of global carbon emissions (lower than any region other than sub-Saharan Africa), almost every challenge identified by the report – water, agriculture, population movement, decline in economic growth – will assume crisis proportions with the compounding effects of climate change. These transnational issues provide an opportunity to work with the region in new ways – to treat this region as a more integral part of the global community while it pursues its long needed internal reforms.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices