Progress Free Zone: Will Arab Leaders Ever Learn?

Between Rigid Order and Chaos

Nations are Complex Adaptive Systems. As used here Complexity refers to situations where the overall pattern of the system is dictated to a large extent by its internal dynamics; the interactions between its constituent elements. The system functions at its best when chaotic local interactions proceed in such a way as to produce stable but evolving self-organised overall patterns. In other words, in a properly functioning system there is a healthy mix of local chaos and global order.

This is not a novel idea, although the scientific explanations only became evident in the second half of the twentieth century. Adam Smith, the father of microeconomics, suggested, back in the eighteenth century, that when markets are regulated by few sensible laws, the local chaotic interactions between agents (buyers, sellers, producers, etc.) produce overall order that resolves the basic economic questions (what to produce, for whom, and how) in the most efficient manner. He called the mechanism that translates local chaos into global order the ‘invisible hand’.

In the case of nations, the elements are members of the population. Their interactions determine the state of the nation. In a nation that is operating well, chaotic interactions between people result in stable national patterns that change and evolve in accordance with changing circumstances. This, essentially, is what distinguishes successful countries (such as Britain) from less successful countries (such as Afghanistan). This topic is dealt with in detail in a book I published in 2002 (Complex Adaptive Systems and the Practice of Development).

Arab countries present a classic case of nations riddled by unhealthy chaos or rigid order at both the local and national levels. These nations are not going anywhere and will continue to stumble along until they change their behaviour radically. The recipe is simple, but it is not so easy to implement. People must be free (democracy, respect for human and property rights, etc.) and able (healthy, literate, etc.) to interact within sensible rules and institutions that regulate their activities fairly.

Iraq: A Perfect Example

Iraq provides an excellent illustration. Under Saddam Hussein, members of the population were not allowed to interact freely and within sensible rules that commanded willing support and compliance. There was stifling order and little else. To make matters worse, Iraq was dragged into debilitating wars that made it virtually impossible for people to interact (learn, buy and sell, innovate, start businesses, undertake research, etc.). As if that were not enough, UN sanctions managed over a period of thirteen years to strip most members of the population of their capability to interact. Iraq sunk into the lower rungs of the development league. The process was inevitable and predictable.

How did the recent war change the situation? First, Complex Adaptive Systems (and hence nations) do not respond well to command-and-control methods of management. These methods are effective on an industrial assembly line but they are totally ineffective in dealing with Complex situations. When this is attempted through remote control, the outcome becomes a forgone conclusion. The US government, or more accurately the small cabal that is now in effect the government in the USA, is convinced that it is able to impose order, democracy, compliance, etc. on Iraq. That kite will not fly, as evidenced by past experience in Iraq and other Arab countries. One brutal regime is being replaced by another, only outwardly less brutal, regime intent on imposing order. This is not the way nations evolve and develop.

The Rest of the Arab World is the Same

Sadly, Iraq is all too typical of what goes on elsewhere in the Arab world. Naturally, conditions in Iraq might seem more dramatic and extreme but beneath the surface the same factors that compel nations to stagnate or go backward are in operation throughout the region.

The above statement might seem somewhat harsh, but sadly it is painfully accurate; as shown by the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), published in July 2002 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. The report makes depressing reading, as demonstrated by the following selected statements:

The Symptoms:

  • The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of all Arab countries ($531.2 billion) is less than that of |Spain ($595.5 billion). This is nothing new. Mohamed Heikal, in a 1992 book titled Illusions of Triumph, observed that the combined income of all Arab countries by the end of the 1980s (i.e. after the so-called oil bonanza) was roughly the same as Spain’s and less than Italy’s.
  • In the meantime the gap has simply widened. Why? AHDR reported that “over the past twenty years, growth in Arab per capita income was the lowest in the world except in sub-Saharan Africa.” And the state of the economy in sub-Saharan Africa does not require elaboration! At this rate it will take an average Arab citizen 140 years to double his or her income (compared with less than 10 years in other regions of the world). Moreover, total factor productivity declined at an annual average of 0.2 percent between 1960 and 1990, while it rapidly accelerated elsewhere.

The Reasons:

  • Human development progress in the Arab region in the past decade was lower than the world average. Three deficits were highlighted; freedom, women’s empowerment, and knowledge. Few Arabs would disagree with that self-evident conclusion.
  • Utilisation of Arab women’s capabilities through political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world. (Half the population is inactive.)
  • Out of seven regions surveyed, Arab countries had the lowest freedom score in the late-1990s. (People are not free to interact.)
  • About 65 million adults, out of 280 million, are illiterate; two-thirds being women. (People are not able to interact.)

The Results:

  • Progress is not measured in opulent airports and out of town American-style shopping malls. The standard of living of ordinary Arabs is not improving.
  • Not surprisingly, AHDR reported that 51 percent of older adolescents interviewed and 45 percent of younger persons expressed a desire to emigrate.
  • Estimates vary widely, but it is thought that there are over one million highly qualified Arab graduates living abroad. No nation could sustain that scale of loss in human capital.

Plenty of Excuses

Rulers and their subjects have a habit of blaming everyone but themselves for the dire state of development that the Arab people endure. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a popular excuse. There is no doubt that the Palestinians are a wronged people who deserve, and must have, justice and redress. However, it is difficult to see how their plight could have affected countries far and near to such an extent. The opposite is of course true: the pathetic state of Arab countries and their governments drastically reduces their effectiveness in arguing and promoting the Palestinian cause.

Arab leaders start from an undeniable position of weakness. To make matters worse they are over-obsessed by their weakness. This has now become a regular excuse for doing nothing. At the domestic level they use brute force, coupled with rigged elections sometimes, to lord it over their citizens. But at the international level they become excruciatingly submissive. They do not rank themselves high, and their opponents welcome that assessment. It was embarrassing to see a junior minister at the British Foreign Office on a recent visit to an Arab country being met by no less than the president. There are scores of junior ministers in the British government and a visit by such an official should have been seen as an insignificant event rather than a major affair of state. This, unfortunately, is a regular occurrence.

The next excuse is just as unconvincing. It concerns democracy and takes two forms: the Arabs are not ready for democracy, and democracy would bring the ‘wrong people’ to power. Europe was ready for democracy several centuries ago, but it seems Arab leaders think their people are not ready yet! When did the Arabs lose the penchant for democracy that they possessed so clearly in the early years of Islam?

The other part of this excuse is infinitely worse: what is meant by the ‘wrong people’? Sixty percent of people in Iraq are Shiites. Presumably free elections in Iraq would bring a majority of Shiites into government. This is seen as unacceptable in the Arab world (and in the USA, which is the judge and jury on matters of democracy these days). On the other hand, it is acceptable for Israel to have a fundamentalist Jewish government. When Algeria was on the verge of electing an Islamic government in 1992 steps were taken to provoke a military takeover that has resulted in many thousands of deaths at the hands of ‘extremist terror groups’ unhappy with the military government. I ask myself, as a Christian Arab, whether the present situation in Algeria is better than an elected Islamic government. The ‘right people’ in the Arab world means in effect keeping power within the family. A trend has now set in where son follows father even when the country is supposedly a republic!

Incidentally, the Palestinian issue and the lack of democracy in the Arab world are not unconnected. The nightmare scenario for the extremists in the Israeli government is the emergence of democracy and good governance within the Palestinian leadership and within the rest of the Arab countries. Basically, you can commit any atrocity on the international stage as long as it is against undemocratic people. An inclination to terrorism, true or otherwise, is an added bonus. Hence in a recent communications manual produced by the Wexner Foundation and designed to help Israelis to promote their cause the suggestion was made that “Iraq colors all. Saddam is your best defense, even if he is dead…If you express your concern for the plight of the Palestinian people and how it is unfair, unjust and immoral that they should be forced to accept leaders who steal and kill in their name, you will be building credibility for your support of the average Palestinian while undermining the credibility of their leadership…,etc., etc.” But the Arab world remains on the whole stubbornly undemocratic.

What Are the Main Obstacles?

AHDR listed a few signs of progress, but on the whole the report leaves one with the unmistakable impression that little has been achieved over the last fifty years. More alarming, in some significant issue areas the Arab countries managed to go backwards. This is quite a feat as nations usually stumble forward even without trying. In effect, there are certain aspects of Arab life that militate against progress. Some of the key factors are outlined below. They concern the lack of inter-Arab cooperation, oppressive US influence over Arab regimes and leaders, inability of the Arabs to acquire an effective voice, and, sad to admit, Arabs preoccupation with historic baggage that keeps them firmly rooted in the past.

Lack of Inter-Arab Cooperation

Arab countries are ideally suited to close cooperation. They share the same language, the same culture and history, and virtually the same interests. Their division into separate countries is an artificial structure imposed in the main by past colonial powers. Not unexpectedly, Arabs often speak of union as an obvious aim. It has been on the agenda of almost all political factions for as long as I can remember. Nonetheless, little has been achieved (as in fact underlined by AHDR). Within the Arab world, local leaders are reluctant to lose any power to a larger entity. This is not unusual, as has been seen in Europe since the end of World War II. As European leaders recognised, however, without compromise progress towards cooperation is impossible. This is the situation in the Arab world..

It would not be correct to claim there has been no progress whatsoever. Admittedly, the performance of some inter-Arab organisations, the Arab League being a prime example, have been most disappointing to say the least. On the other hand, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development could be counted as definite success stories. One has to work hard to cite many other examples though.

Possibly the most intriguing facet of lack of cooperation concerns inter-Arab trade, which is negligible. Equally surprising, the miniscule nature of trade between Arab countries has not changed much in half a century.

The ruinous nature of this lack of regional trade merits some elaboration. There has been a phenomenal growth in international trade since the end of World War II. World merchandise exports amounted to just under $6000 billion in 2001 (World Trade Organisation, WTO, statistics; This huge and fast-growing business is at the heart of global capitalism.

The distribution of international trade is highly uneven, but it has a distinctive pattern. Stallings (in Global Change, Regional Response) cited clear indications that the previous bipolar system of military opponents is being replaced by ‘a tripolar system of economic competitors’. This triad is clearly recognisable today as the ‘American region’ (primarily the area covered by North America Free Trade Agreement plus Latin America), the ‘European region’ (mainly but not exclusively the European Union), and ‘South East Asia and Pacific region’ (essentially Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation zone, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

Networks of trade, production, and finance bind the three economic blocs together, but the trading links within each region are the dominant feature. In 2001, for instance, trade flows within the ‘American region’ amounted to 56 percent of total internal and external trade flows. The figure for Western Europe was 67.5 percent, and that for Asia was 48.2 percent (WTO statistics). The pattern is obvious: the first priority is given to local trade and then to regional trade with neighbouring partners that share the same characteristics, traditions, and values. Trade with others outside the region comes last on the agenda. There are ‘scientific’ basis for this feature: Game Theory strongly suggests that most fruitful and sustainable cooperation takes place between similar (roughly equal) partners who expect to interact repeatedly.

Contrast with what happens in the marginalised (and failing) regions is compelling. Internal trade flows within the Middle East region account for only 7.6 percent of its total trade. Africa does slightly better with 7.8 percent. Total trade flows (internal and external) in these two regions are in any case only a small percentage of world total; 4 and 2.4 percent respectively. The practice of putting the emphasis on finding foreign trading partners in preference to seeking local and regional Arab partners is simply baffling. It is not, and could not be, an effective strategy. And yet the clamour for cooperation with ‘our Arab brothers’ is deafening throughout the region. Less sycophantic rhetoric and more action would bring benefits to everyone.

Oppressive US Influence

Two points should be made clear at the outset. First, US influence, as the reigning hegemonic power is in evidence throughout the world. It is all pervasive and successful countries learn to live with and profit from it. And second, ‘US’ does not necessarily mean the ‘American government’ or the ‘American people’.

It is difficult to avoid US influence, and it is not necessarily the case that this influence is bad in all cases. The situation in the Arab world is coloured by the traditional Arab view of the exercise of power. Despite their insistence that they are a democratic race free from hierarchical inhibitions, the Arabs have an unhealthy high regard for power and position. If you are at the top then you are all powerful, but you are also just and wise when you exercise your power to the full. If you are at the bottom, you simply obey and seek every opportunity to pay homage to those at the top. Arab leaders in their dealings with the American ‘masters’ follow this tradition. The idea that they could have their own points of view and their own national interests that they have to promote does not come into the equation it seems. The Americans take their cue from that stance; they have little respect for the Arabs and their leaders. They see them as weak and cloyingly submissive. This is painful to express in such stark terms but no progress could be made unless Arab leaders realised that even unequal partners can have their say.

The problem comes into sharper focus when Arab leaders fall into the pitfall of treating every American official as the ‘US government’. There is a massive difference between the way governments are structured in the USA and in the Arab world. The US ‘government’ is a huge collection of competing and cooperating factions. This goes right to the top. There lies the strength of the American system. An Arab government reflects the views of a handful of people at most. Ready expressions of loyalty and obedience to each and every American official that comes their way leaves Arab leaders in a state of utter futility. This is also an ineffectual strategy in dealing with a complex organisation such as the ‘US government’. When you add to that the hordes of visiting American persons who represent US corporate interests, the water becomes so muddied that little could be transacted sensibly.

Basically, Arab leaders need to remind themselves that it is quite possible to have a consistent national policy without necessarily offending the ‘world order’. Other countries manage to do just that (and I am not referring here to Israel only, although it is a striking example of strictly selfish cooperation!).

Lack of Effective Voice

Much has been said, and with good reason, about the global dominance of Western media, and the Israeli influences that shape output from these media. Similarly, much has been said, again quite rightly, about the primitive state of computer and Internet output in the Arabic language. However, I wish to address a less lofty topic; press announcements by and interviews with Arab spokespersons.

I was born in Iraq but I have lived in the West for over forty years. I am tuned to both the Arabic and English forms of expression and communication. To me Arabic is a rich, sophisticated and beautiful language. Conversely, nothing is more embarrassing to me than hearing the attempts made by some Arab leaders and their assistants to communicate in English when their knowledge of that language is limited. They formulate images and points of view in Arabic and then they proceed to translate them into broken English. The effort does not do justice to the sensible and, more often than not, just messages they are are attempting to convey. Often they sound incomprehensible, and occasionally they sound plainly funny. The problem becomes excruciating when they are followed by an Israeli spokesperson who is comfortable with the English language. Arab representatives lose hands down.

Why do the Arabs persist in harming their cause in this unnecessary way? At heart, there is an unjustified feeling that one is somehow deficient if one did not speak English. This belief is plainly unwarranted. There is no particular merit in speaking English, or any other foreign language, well although it is desirable for those who regularly have to communicate at international gatherings to do so. Moreover, Arab leaders think it is demeaning to communicate through experienced spokespersons. Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian who is totally at ease in Arabic and English and a person who is endowed with excellent communication skills, was appointed by the Arab League to act as principal spokeswoman. That experiment did not last long and the Arab League went back to butchering its messages on the international scene.

It will take a great deal of courage for Arab leaders to accept the fact, that is taken for granted everywhere else, that there are horses for courses. Status is not affected if a person had to communicate through an interpreter or, preferably, through an experienced spokesperson.

Historic Baggage

The Arabs excelled in the past in almost all fields. They had an impressive empire, but more importantly their culture and science were unequalled for a long period of time. Wars against Christian Crusaders in Palestine and Syria and conflict with Christian princes in Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as well as invasions by Mongols and other races in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries weakened the Arabs considerably. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Arabs came under successive attacks by Western Europeans. Ultimately, Syria, Egypt and western Arabia were occupied by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, and Baghdad was conquered by the Ottomans in the seventeenth century.

The various attackers had one thing in common: they were fighting not simply to take territory and wealth, but to subdue and subvert a religion and a culture. The first targets were almost invariably schools, libraries, and other places of secular and religious learning. Furthermore, the period from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries was marked by debilitating epidemics.

By the end of World War I, domination of the Arab nations had shifted from the Ottomans to the British and French. Promises of independence, self-rule, and unity were quickly forgotten by the new masters. Independence, when it came, took the form of rulers appointed by foreign powers and boundaries drawn haphazardly by the same powers to divide and rule and to meet their requirements. Political and economic life in the Arab world has not changed much since that time.

The above historic snapshot is necessary to inject a degree of realism in what could be expected from the Arab nations and their rulers. They have not enjoyed freedom and independence for many centuries; in fact the same centuries during which European and American people were gradually, and sometimes painfully, acquiring the features we now recognise as liberal democracy. Europeans and Americans are not democratic and free because they are ‘Western’ or Christian. They became free and democratic because they worked hard at gaining these rights.

The Arab people have had people in modern times who tried hard to promote independence and self-determination. Ahmed Arabi’s revolt against the foreign rulers of Egypt in 1882 is a notable example. The rebellion was crushed when Britain dispatched a massive force that eventually colonised Egypt. Others worked, and died, for the same cause in all other Arab countries. Unfortunately, such endeavours did not achieve a critical mass that would have enabled them to persist and then prevail. On the contrary, cynicism and despair seem to have gained the upper hand in recent decades. A new element has also emerged: infiltration of patriotic movements by external powers, which adds to the sense of self-doubt that Arabs now exude in abundance.

In the absence of a sustained movement towards independence and freedom of action (matters that are now taken for granted in most regions), Arab nations are being encouraged by their leaders to bury themselves in introspection and self-delusion founded on past glories. This regrettable tendency is unmistakable in broadcasts by Arabic radio and television stations. Occasionally, the message is sublimated into what appear on first inspection to be straightforward religious programmes.

There is of course nothing wrong with being proud of a distinguished past , but that should be a spur for more effort to make progress in the present. Sadly, the Arabs recite past accomplishments as an end in itself. The link between past glories and present failures is never confronted or discussed. This missing link has to be confronted head on for anything positive to be gained from recalling the distant past.

Time to Put Sycophancy Aside

I expect to be severely criticised for publishing such a negative article. It is an unfortunate fact that too many Arabs are given to sycophancy. Leaders are exalted and praised to high heaven. When they are gone they are reviled just as passionately. And the next lot are met with exaggerated expressions of respect and blind obedience. In the middle of the recent war on Iraq an opposition leader (supported by the usual armed gang with weapons provided by the USA; as happened in Saddam’s early days but that is another story) was paraded in a town recently ‘liberated’ by the coalition forces. In a depressing flashback to previous leaders in Iraq, people were rushing forward in droves to kiss his hand. Even more depressing, he was enjoying the phony adulation.

Criticism of those in authority, no matter how fair and deserved, is often perceived as an unseemly act. By tradition, self-criticism of certain aspects of Arab life and behaviour is also unwelcome. It is viewed as unpatriotic or an encouragement to ‘our enemies’. These mistaken viewpoints are cultivated by the elites in the Arab world. The status quo could be retained if constructive criticisms were eliminated.

Without doubt, no radical change in the fortunes of the Arab nation could be achieved while we all pretend everything in the garden is lovely. A word about ‘radical change’ is helpful in concluding this article. Elites in the Arab world are fearful of any change. But change is inevitable and unstoppable. They equate change with loss of power and privilege. To some extent this is true. However, elites in the advanced countries learned a long time ago that powered and privilege acquired by coercion is unsustainable. They shunned excessive rewards precariously retained in favour of reasonable rewards held in perpetuity.

Radical change does not, and should not, mean that all the ruling elites in the Arab world should be discarded. What is the point of doing that? New elites will have to be installed. It is better to retain the present elites (together with their expertise and self-interest) in a reformed stricture that to trust the future to a new and untried elite. The ruling family in the United Arab Emirates provide an excellent illustration. They proved over the years that they are wise and that they are willing to embrace change. It would be a catastrophe for the UAE to lose their current rulers. However, reform is necessary to effect a gradual move to a constitutional monarchy. There lies a sustainable future for rulers and their subjects. The same could be said of regimes in other Arab countries.

Fundamentally, reliance on foreign powers is not a safe strategy; as the Shah of Iran found out to his cost. Powers change course to suit circumstances. They have no alliance to anyone else. When the chips are down armies are not prepared to fight for an unpopular leader either; as Saddam Hussein found out to his cost. Rulers can only trust a nation that is reasonably content, secure and have a modicum of influence. This is why leaders in Britain, as one example amongst many, come and go but they always belong to a small enduring elite. How long will it take Arab leaders to recognise this simple stratagem. Hopefully not too long.


The above article has already engendered much helpful comment. I am most grateful to those who wrote; to agree and to disagree.

One recurrent theme that cropped up in a number of responses is typified by the following comment:

“The Arab nation has to follow the European and American examples of establishing a secular state before being able to proceed to democracy. This is because no theocratic state can ever be democratic.”

I agree entirely. Failing that, which is likely, it is necessary to build into the democratic system safeguards that allow the nation to change its mind at future elections. Most people fear, with good reason, that once a theocratic state comes to power it might proceed to take that fundamental right away from the electorate.

It is beyond question that the Enlightenment in Europe and the USA only came about when the church lost its power over people. This does not mean that nations in these regions abandoned their religious beliefs. It simply meant that people’s minds were freed to explore possibilities and practices that were disallowed previously.

This is most important in the Arab world where religion has become, by force of circumstances, the only unifying ‘political party’. Politicians currently in power have lost what little respect and credibility they might have enjoyed in the past. Right or wrong, they are now perceived as nothing more than corrupt and incompetent lackeys of foreign powers. Tragically, there is only religion left in the political arena.

Another popular theme could be summed up by the following comment:

“Democracy is fine, but would the USA and the major global corporations (especially those involved in oil and weapons) ever allow the Arab countries to move in that direction?”

Again a fair point, and on past evidence there will be some foreign forces (not to mention local and regional interests) that would view democracy in the Arab world as a threat. What possible excuse could the USA have in interfering in the affairs of Arab countries if they were managed by transparent democratic governments? More to the point, how could Israel continue its flagrant repression of the Palestinian nation if it were governed by a democratic authority? The answers are obvious.

At the end of the day though, nations have the final word on how they want to be governed. But first they have to come to a decision point and that can only emerge if enough voices were raised to demand true democracy. Arab intellectuals and academics have a key role in this process of consensus building. If they were to continue to obfuscate and indulge the present elites then nothing will happen. In short, as in all other matters, a degree of honesty, courage and selflessness has to come into play in the Arab way of doing things.

A third theme concerned the brain drain. The article referred to the high percentage of young Arabs who would wish to emigrate. A number of respondents raised the point that this feature has been in evidence for a very long time. There are now many hundreds of thousands of highly qualified, and highly experienced, Arabs living abroad. How does one begin to utilise this massive human capital?

Not easy. The Arab League mounted a survey in the 1970s to document the numbers of qualified Arabs abroad and to record their particular areas of expertise. As usual, that survey came to nothing. In truth, much is known about this topic and with the aid of mailing lists and the Internet the task of contacting these Arab experts is not all that difficult. The problem is in convincing them to come back on a short or long term basis. Clearly, younger persons who emigrated in the recent past and who are currently building up their careers are most unlikely to go back.

However, there are others who are in different situation. Some are retired, others are on the verge of retirement, after long and distinguished careers. There is a higher probability that they might consider a new career of a few years back in the Arab world. There is an added advantage of focusing on this group: they will not be seen as a threat to jobs for younger people. Their contribution might be accepted as a short-term injection of human resources. Sadly, the task of planning and implementing such a move could not be left to individual governments or to the Arab League. There is a need for a private collaborative to be set up to market human resources currently available in the West. Let us hope an enterprising individual or group would come forward to do just that.