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Optimism Grows in the Arab World

Two months ago, Zogby International, a Washington-based research organization, conducted a public opinion poll in six Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The respondents, randomly chosen from different neighborhoods in various cities of each country, were asked to give their opinion on a number of issues, including concerns facing their country and their personal life, economic development, employment opportunities and the likelihood of peace in the Middle East.

Overall, respondents expressed more satisfaction with their lives and more optimism about their future than they did in a 2002 poll. In Lebanon, both satisfaction and optimism have doubled. This is not surprising, says James Rauch, a professor of economics at the University of California in San Diego.

“The Lebanese, probably more than [people in] any other country have experienced an enormous change now with the end of the Syrian occupation. So I would say they would have more good reason to be optimistic than probably any other country.”

Professor Rauch spent the first half of this year in Lebanon, where he witnessed peaceful demonstrations and the departure of Syrian troops following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“What was amazing, and I think maybe even surprised the Lebanese themselves, is that there was no violence. There was never an incident. There was never a tear gas canister fired. And that’s despite the fact that all these demonstrations were ringed by Lebanese military armed with armor personnel carriers.”

Professor Rauch adds that positive developments throughout the region could be cause for increased optimism. He notes that many Arab countries have improved health, literacy and incomes of their citizens.

“In the last few years, because of the high price of oil and because of an Arab free trade agreement and because of better economic integration with Europe, there’s been some acceleration of the economic growth in most of the Arab world and they may be responding to that. And it may also be [that they are responding to] political developments.”

But some analysts express dismay at the apparent optimism in a region fraught with violence, gender inequalities and, according to the latest UN Human Development Report, egregious lack of freedom. Karen Kramer, a political science lecturer at Purchase College, New York, says recent political changes in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have not been substantial enough.

“By and large in the Arab countries, the rulers still hold the ultimate power. And this at the end of the day is the key. Egypt may hold elections, but with only government-approved parties and government-controlled press and government’s control over speech and the right for political association. The government basically has the ability to prevent any kind of a real challenge.”

Karen Kramer says Egypt’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose members won more parliament seats than expected in recent elections, is an example. The region also has serious economic problems and unemployment remains high.

“Has there been progress? Yes, especially in some countries. But we have to ask have there been benefits for the majority of the population. Elites in Egypt may be doing well with this current drive toward market reform and privatization and so forth. But economies throughout the Arab world remain very heavily dominated by the state, with all the inefficiencies and lack of competitiveness that that entails. And I think that economic conditions for most people continue to be quite difficult.”

Karen Kramer says economic problems may beset even oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia. She notes there was an economic crisis there after the first Gulf War and today the kingdom faces growing unemployment among its huge young population. Yet, both optimism and satisfaction in Saudi Arabia have increased dramatically since the 2002 poll. Only nine percent of the Saudis say they would consider relocation to another country for employment, compared to 55 percent in Lebanon, for example.

Hayat Alvi-Aziz, professor of international studies at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, says this is because Saudi Arabia is a very traditional, family-oriented society, more so than many other Arab countries. Average Saudi families are still doing better than families in most other Arab nations thanks to the high prices of oil.

“What incentive would the average Saudi have, especially if they are upper class or upper-middle class, to leave Saudi Arabia? Look at the lifestyle there. If you have the money, you are surrounded by a crew of domestic workers, who serve you hand and foot. You have drivers. You have cars. You really don’t have to lift a finger.”

But Professor Aziz says Saudi Arabia is virtually a police state and in the long run, people cannot prosper in a country with such lack of freedom. Hayat Alvi-Aziz and other critics acknowledge that while the political and economic changes in the Arab world have been modest by western standards, they have been significant for the Arab world. The poll indicates that the improvements, small or large, seem to have served as encouragement to people in the region. And Professor Aziz says it is important that this progress, no matter how slow, goes on.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.