The Challenges Facing the Arab Nation on the Threshold of the 21st Century
Dr. Khalid Abdulla

The end of the cold war, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new power configuration, ushered in the historical end of the twentieth century on the international level. On the more localized Arab level, this historical end was demarcated with the tragedy of the Gulf war and the beginning of the peace negotiations. Although the twenty-first century will assume the challenges of the past, it will approach them with new perspectives and novel options. The symptoms of these changes are manifested in the intellectual discourse and the cultural debates that have sometimes reached the extent of questioning deeply held convictions.
    The twentieth century presented the Arab nation with fateful challenges at a time when half of its potential was un-utilized and the other half unprepared. In the early part of the century, the Arab people were forced to cope with the shackles of subordination, division and dependency as a result of promises which were never met. There was the pledge by the allies, particularly from Britain during the First World War that in return for the Arab's active participation in the war efforts against Germany and the Ottoman State, they would be permitted to realize their long sought goal of independence and the formation of a united Arab state. At the same time, Britain, in a classic case of political deception, was also issuing contradictory pledges to other groups of people. A glaring example of that double dealing was the "Sykes-Picot" agreement, which negated its promises to the Arabs and resolved to divide the Arab area into spheres of influence, under British and French mandate. In addition, there was the ill reputed Balfour Declaration promising the Jewish people a homeland on Palestinian territory.
    During the next few decades, the Arab people were submerged in the struggle for independence and unity; and in 1945 the then seven independent states initiated the League of Arab States to serve as a mechanism to strengthen cooperation among them. Since then, serious efforts have been exercised by the Arab League in a variety of fields, such as assisting in the struggle toward achieving independence for those remaining Arab countries that were still under colonial rule as well as in the area of cooperation amongst them.
    Likewise, during the first half of the century, the Arab nation had to confront another major challenge; this time it was the partitioning of Palestine by the United Nations and the creation of the Jewish State. A consequence of the decision to partition Palestine was a continuous, intense and bloody struggle which lasted for decades, costing the Arab nation much energy and great resources.
    Peace negotiations were eventually started in 1992 to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. From the very beginning, it was very clear that if these talks were to succeed and produce a lasting peace, they had to be comprehensive and based on justice. A comprehensive and just peace has been an old Arab demand which the Arab League has worked hard for; one of the League's most important initiatives in this regard was the 1982 Fez Summit conference resolutions. A lasting conclusion to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was agreed, must be based on international legitimacy and grounded in the principle of land for peace which means that Israel must withdraw from all the land that came under its occupation in the aftermath of the 1967 war.
    It goes without saying that Israel's respect for its own negotiated commitments and its willingness to accept the adjudication of international legitimacy and the principle of land for peace, will create an environment whereby acts of violence will be no longer tolerated and the march toward a comprehensive peace will be much firmer. And while it may be politically more expedient and rewarding to play to public sympathy, one should not lose sight of the reward of peace in the long run. It is true that peace is a long and arduous process, but it is also true that its many fruits will finally be reaped by the people, all the people. The fruits of political expediency, on the other hand, will always remain the exclusive property and for the sole benefit of the politicians. Israel's leaders, therefore, are called upon to demonstrate that their concern is more for the well being of future generations than it is for securing their own political hold on power for a few more years.
    What then are the challenges facing the Arab nation with the dawn of the twenty-first century? We must differentiate between two levels: There are on the first level those challenges which Arabs face being a part of the inhabitants of this, our only earth. This set of challenges concerns environmental pollution, increasing poverty, arms control, etc. On the second level, there are those challenges which concern the Arab people, and by tackling such issues, the Arabs will have contributed significantly to making our world more peaceful, more just and more humane.
    The issues confronting our people at this time are both numerous and complex. They nevertheless can be grouped into three basic categories, all of which have been with us for most of this century, but none of which has been resolved satisfactorily. They, therefore, remain with us and now beg to be investigated and resolved.
    The first of these challenges lies in the ability of the various Arab countries to achieve fuller integration. This objective is necessary for two main reasons:
    The first is important because the absence of such arrangements as greater cooperation and coordination, and stronger and more reliable ties, could be an invitation for more divisiveness and for sharper contradictions among them. Problems such as borders and water disputes will more likely be aggravated with the lack of a reasonable regional arrangement.
    The second reason which makes integration even more necessary is the outcome of the old maxim which says that there is added strength in unity and togetherness. Arab integration will mean much greater power and ability to affect matters around the world than the aggregate sum of the individual Arab States.

    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 League’s 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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