The Challenges Facing the Arab Nation on the Threshold of the 21st
Dr. Khalid Abdulla
The important question to ask, therefore, is
this: why has the Arab nation been unsuccessful in achieving this objective? The answer is
not an easy one; there are various explanations for that but only a few, particularly the
external ones, have been extensively highlighted. I believe that two important variables
need to be looked at and investigated.
It was initially believed that many factors such as the historical, cultural and religious factors which have been in existence in the Arab world would play a significant role toward the achievement of Arab unity in the post independence era. There was a failure to realize that independence has led to the formation of new interest groups who, because of their fear of losing their vested interests, will oppose measures leading toward more integration. Therefore, it is no longer sufficient or plausible to rely on those factors mentioned earlier, such as historical, cultural and religious to activate the engine of Arab integration, while at the same time failing to buttress them with the more pertinent ones, such as economic factors.
The other factor is the resolve of Arab countries to protect their independence and their sovereignty which is reflected in many articles of the Arab Leagues Charter. This strict and literal adherence to the concept of sovereignty has been, in a number of cases, an obstacle to the carrying out of agreements and has deprived a number of resolutions of their effectiveness since it was stipulated that such resolutions and agreements should not conflict with the prevailing laws and regulations.
But one has to admit that at the institutional and legal level the Arab League has taken serious steps which could be used as a basis for a new strategy aiming at achieving integration and enhancing cooperation among the Arab countries. Some of the most important aspects which should be kept in mind while pursuing that strategy are the following:
(1) Rebuild the trust and confidence which was shaken as a consequence of the Gulf war episode. This can be arrived at by carefully amending the Arab League Charter, so as to embrace the latest innovations of preventive diplomacy, well tested means to resolve conflicts and peace enforcement mechanisms. Adopting such steps and others like them, will go a long way toward assuring the security of many of the Arab states.
(2) Employing certain mechanisms which are necessary to implement the resolutions and the agreements concluded by the League's Councils within the framework of acknowledging that integration comes in gradual yet continuous steps but certainly not through dodging or ignoring the prevailing political, economic and social realities.
(3) That integration should come on the basis of shared benefits and common interests and not on the basis of assistance and donations. The experience of the seventies and the eighties during which the rich Arab countries extended loans and grants to the poorer ones, proved that such programs were a burden to the process of integration, if only for creating the impression that such capital flows were a charity from the haves to the have nots. What should be stressed instead are such steps as creating joint ventures and allowing free movement of products and factors of production which could facilitate cooperation and finally integration.
(4) Establishing a proper balance between individual and collective interests within the larger goal of integration. This will require a commitment from the various Arab states to recognize and respect the sovereignty of each of them, which means avoiding intervention, direct or indirect, in the internal affairs of one another. On the other hand, the multilateral institutions should be provided with the proper tools to motivate the states to honor and abide by the resolutions passed by those institutions.
The second major challenge which faces the Arab nation lies in greater economic and social development. In the aftermath of three or four decades of planned development, the results are as follows:
One, that the Arab countries, according to certain studies, come only ahead of the group of African countries south of the Sahara, in terms of human development.
Two, that there is a widening of the income gap between the Arab states and the industrialized countries. For example, the Arab GNP in 1978 was equivalent to 90% of that of Italy. In 1993, that percentage has dropped to less than 60%. In fact, the total national Arab income has decreased from $431 billion in 1980 to $420 billion in 1991. This picture becomes more gloomy when put against the rate of population growth in the Arab world, causing a further lowering of the total per capita income by 30%.
Three, that the per capita income gap in the varying Arab states has continued to be quite wide as well, and now ranges from $300 per capita in some Arab countries to more than $12,000 in other countries.
Four, that the Arab countries now are net importers of food stuff; and the gap between local production and consumption reaches around $12 billion annually.
Undoubtedly there are many reasons which explain the lack of success in development plans. The overarching reason for this failure, however, arises from trying to implement development policies that are solely based on, or inspired by the experience of the industrialized countries. In this ideology of development, the industrialized countries have become both the starting and the ending point for the developing world, including the Arab countries. Those Arab countries, as a result, have come to view their economic and social conditions, along with their intellectual and cultural circumstances through a limited perspective. They also began to assess their development strategy and their prosperity and progress by the prism of their gross national product. In this way, the whole concept of prosperity was tied to the size of commodities and services produced by a nation, regardless of the nature or the cost, both socially and environmentally, invested in the production of those commodities. Furthermore, the concept of development itself has been limited to economic growth rather than to the development of the society as a whole. As a result of these economic policies, many added problems were created for many sectors which relied on that sort of development.
Based on the conviction that development is synonymous with increased national income, many of the Arab economic policies encouraged greater inclusion of the various productive sectors in the market economy. The agricultural sector for example which, by and large, was traditionally geared for producing, for self consumption, a production which was not included in the national income, was now included in the market through the policy of agricultural reforms which forced farmers to produce cash crops, and prompted many of them to move to the cities and merge in the market economy. Such a measure produced a double negative reaction: it hurt farmers and transformed them into importers of food, and caused great congestion in already over crowded urban areas.
While these policies with regard to exploitation of natural resources may have doubled the national income, their outcome will be an early depletion of these resources without necessarily creating a substitute capital to replace them in the long run.
Moreover, the rush by many Arab countries to increase the national income, has forced them to embrace industrial plans which do not correspond to the peoples' needs as much as they do to the foreign markets.
Obviously, there is a serious need for economic reforms in the Arab world, as there is everywhere else, but what is being championed by international economic institutions deals only with one aspect of the problem. And while it is clear that such reforms are incapable of resolving the existing strains in the Arab world, it is highly likely, nevertheless that they will produce new ones. What is being emphasized in the set of reforms of the international institutions is economic efficiency; included in this set are various steps which aim at ending the distortion in prices, controlling inflation and allowing for free exchange rates. Because of such distortion in the exchange rates and prices, the allocation of resources does not respond efficiently to the needs of the market. As important as these steps are, they are only attempts to match production with the existing distribution of income. But a total and effective economic reform cannot be achieved unless it also achieves equity of distribution and sustainability of development. In the final analysis, it is possible to achieve economic efficiency through equal or unequal distribution of resources within a society. Moreover, the implementation of these reforms will naturally produce winners and losers, which will require taking account of the subject of distribution in such a way as to prevent widening the gap in income and wealth.
The other requirement for economic reforms depends on guaranteeing sustainability of development through a careful balance between development, on the one hand, and the natural resources-carrying capacity, on the other hand. This crucial equilibrium should be considered, based on long-range planning, and should also take into serious consideration cost and returns for all of society and not for part of it only. The success of such planning depends on the capacity of the economy to develop, taking into consideration the balance between the depletion of natural resources, their rate of renewal and, finally, the country's ability to absorb the refuse produced by such development.
The third challenge is to safeguard the national Arab security. For many decades, this very concept has been understood as defending the Arab nation against armed aggression. This concept of security was based on analysis of the prevailing regional conditions throughout the second half of this century. Consequently, much money and effort were spent on the military aspect. Such expenditures have reached the highest ratio in the world. Suffice it to mention that Arab expenditures on defense and security in 1993 accounted for 29% of the total Arab governmental spending in that year.
The marked changes on the global level require that security be redefined to reflect the capacity of the Arab nation to maintain its independence, enhance its well being and protect its mode of living.
Over-exaggerating the external military threat to a country could divert a greater share than necessary of the nation's income to the military sector at the expense of other sectors and could cause social upheavals, weakening the country from the inside, destabilizing it and making it much more vulnerable to external threats. Strengthening the home front in the Arab countries relies, to a large extent, on two primary factors: the first is dealing with the widespread problem of poverty, as manifested in high rates of unemployment, which reaches in some countries as high as 20% of the labor force and more. The picture becomes more grim when we include disguised unemployment. The second is creating conditions whereby more people can take part in the political process, the decision making mechanism, as well as in its implementation. The direct involvement of people in the decision-making process, will improve the state of governance, lessen the probability of wrong decisions, minimize the social costs, and bring about more benefits. Regardless of how important these advantages are and they are important it is ultimately the inherent right of people to participate in decisions which impact their lives and interests. As the twentieth century draws to a close, the Arab nation finds itself struggling to emerge from many decades of internal conflicts to create proper conditions for reconciliation and mobilize its energies to build a more human and prosperous future.
We Arabs, just like the rest of humanity, have one and only one choice: to succeed so that we can participate in the transformation of our mother spaceship into a place of fairness, justice and cooperation; a spaceship that can develop so that it will meet not only our present needs, but also the requirements of future generations.
Dr. Abdulla is the Chief Representative of the League of Arab States to the United States. He presented the foregoing speech before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on October 27.
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