Close to three hundred million people live in 22 Arab countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa. According to the United Nations Development Report, most of these countries have advanced in the areas of health and basic education during the past thirty years. Life expectancy has increased by about 15 years, child mortality rates have fallen by almost two thirds and adult literacy has nearly doubled. But in terms of strengthening individual freedoms and increasing citizen participation in political and economic decision making, most Arab countries have lagged behind the rest of the world.
“Clearly the governments and the way government policy operated was an important part of it,” says Daniel Bachman, chief economist of the Washington-based Internet magazine The Globalist. Mr. Bachman says autocratic governments in many Arab nations have stifled the traditional resourcefulness and ability of their peoples.
“Cities like Baghdad and Damascus were centers of trade for centuries, millennia,” he says. “They have traditions of fostering trade around the world for a long, long time and they have people who have known how to do that, who have known how to do the finances, who are used to dealing with people who are culturally very different from them. It's all imbedded in those cultures.”
But, as Daniel Bachman notes, this potential has not always been developed. “In 1950, you would have said: wow, the Middle East is the place that is most ready to gain from a full blossoming of the market (economy). And of course, now we look back and we say, ‘those countries did the worst of any country. Why would Korea have done better than Iraq?’”
Daniel Bachman says oil has been a blessing as well as a curse for countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq. For decades, it has brought great wealth and power to the governments of these countries. But, they have not developed free societies and fully operating market economies that would sustain their countries in an often volatile oil market.
Some Arab countries have shed colonialism to adopt a socialist system that has stifled private enterprise. Egypt is an example.
Jim Napoli, who spent twelve years in Cairo as chairman of the journalism department at the American University, says during the 1950s, Egypt promoted university education, but not entrepreneurship, leaving many graduates without adequate employment opportunities.
“Most of the problem, or at least a large part of the problem, is rooted in the kind of socialist, Nasserist economic structure and the country is being privatized very slowly,” Mr. Napoli says. “And the media even -- although there has been some movement towards privatization - basically, the media is still state controlled.”
With the exception of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite television channel, most Arab media are government controlled. And Professor Napoli says they are routinely used to perpetuate the status quo.
According to the U.N. report, Yemen and Afghanistan are among the countries that have seen the least development in the past three decades. Life expectancy in both countries is among the lowest in the Arab world, while child-mortality and illiteracy rates remain high. Productivity in both Yemen and Afghanistan is low and unemployment is high. Many analysts cite poor functioning of both countries' governmental systems as main obstacles to overall development.
But some Arab countries are experiencing a healthy growth. Mohammad Al-Momani, professor of Middle-East politics at Rice University in Houston, Texas, says it is because they have empowered their people with knowledge and freedom.
“According to the Freedom House index, Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco rank actually as partly free,” professor Al-Momani says. “They are not free yet. They are not democracies, but they are partly free. And these three countries actually have included their citizens in the decision-making process. They have elections -- true elections, not fake. And therefore, these countries actually are also doing on average better than the other (Arab) countries, economically. Maybe Kuwait because of the oil issue cannot be considered as much, but Morocco and Jordan are specific (not major oil producers) because they allow this window for citizens to actually actively participate in the (political and economic) decision making.”
Professor Al-Momani says Jordan and Morocco also have highly skilled work forces. He notes that while much attention has been paid to eradicating illiteracy in the Arab world, many governments have not promoted education beyond elementary school, especially not for women. As a result, there is a serious shortage of skilled labor. Professor Al-Momani says improving the quality of education should be the number one priority for most Arab countries.
“The region needs to focus more on producing good quality researchers, good quality degrees, etc,” he says. “Quality should be looked for, not quantity. Second is technical training - people who can actually work in factories, etc. Number three: cut the size of the public sector. You have a region whereby the government is basically 60-to-90 percent of the society, of the economic system. This is just huge. It is not logical. It just doesn't work. You need to cut on expenses and let the private sector actually work on its own.”
Middle East analyst Mohammad Al-Momani says strengthening the civic society in the Arab world is another important factor. Citizens who actively participate in the political system are more motivated to make it work. Professor Al-Momani says Arab women must also be included.
“You have half of the population (that is) potentially a huge economic resource. The more you get this (potential) into your economy the better off you will be,” he says.
The United Nations Development Report, prepared by a team of Arab scholars, also finds that the region lags behind the developed world in participating in the worldwide information revolution and the global economy. Computers and the Internet are not available to the majority of people in the region. And in the Arab world, non-Muslim countries are often seen as enemies rather than potential business partners. Again, many analysts blame authoritarian regimes for blocking the free flow of goods and ideas that might undermine their power.
“If you want to develop, you need to be able to accept new ideas,” Mr. Bachman says. “You need to be able to deal with other people in other parts of the world, who are culturally and religiously different from you. And you need to deal with them on an equal basis.”
Economist Daniel Bachman says Arabs are divided on that issue. Some want to join the global market and promote more interaction with the rest of the world. Others fear the spread of Western influence at the expense of their Arab culture and traditions.
Marwan Kraidy is professor of international communication at American University in Washington. He says, “It's really about having reform that comes from within these countries and not it being perceived as being imposed from abroad.”
The United States has recently announced a new initiative for partnership with Arab countries, which includes a series of programs designed to promote entrepreneurship, democracy and education for women. The Bush administration has pledged an initial investment of 29-million dollars in addition to the one-billion dollars a year the United States already provides in economic assistance to the region. But Professor Kraidy points out that some people in the Arab world have already expressed reservations about such initiatives, fearing Western interference in their society. Analysts agree the West should respect Arab needs to create reforms best suited for their societies. But they say the West, especially the United States, can help by fostering the freedom and knowledge that these people need in order to catch up with the rest of the world.