The Arab Illness
By Nayyer Ali MD
We are living in the most peaceful and prosperous time in human history. Not only do more of us enjoy material comfort, but social and political freedom across the globe are at all-time highs by any reasonable measurement.
The number of people living in extreme poverty has declined sharply in the last 30 years, and even more so as a percent of total global population. Human development indicators such as literacy and infant and child mortality and life expectancy are reaching new highs. Despite the financial crisis and its aftermath, the total global economy continues to grow. Meanwhile, wars appear to be a thing of the past, with vast sections of the globe at peace. However, in this overall picture of progress, the nations that make up the Arab world appear to be the odd man out.
The Arab countries for the most part have failed to create real economies that produce real goods in abundance. They have extremely constricted social and political freedoms. The role of women remains very limited. And the governments are, with the exception of Tunisia, essentially dictatorships. This leads to the obvious question, why?
There are no simple answers, but there are several trends that have pushed the Arabs in this direction. First is the failure of Arab economics. Since the 1970’s there have been two kinds of Arab states, the oil-producing petrostates, and the impoverished rest. For the petrostates, it turned out that oil was a curse. It destroyed the ability to have normal politics as control of the government meant control of this massive source of wealth and patronage. Which is why Turkey, which has no oil or any other significant natural resources, is much more developed and productive an economy than any Arab state.
For the non-oil states, economics was blown off-course by “Arab Socialism”, which created giant state-run bureaucracies and companies that employed citizens, but failed to create efficient economies. A great example was Gamel Abdel Nasser’s policy of guaranteeing every Egyptian college graduate a government job. Over time there were too many graduates to honor that promise, but Egyptians still seek employment from the government. The private sector remains weak and shriveled, and the end result is massive youth unemployment. What is even worse, unlike in normal countries, the unemployment in Egypt is highest among the college educated, and lowest among the unskilled laborers who are barely literate and didn’t finish high school.
The second failure has been the failure of politics. After decolonization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, most Arab countries were ruled by monarchs left in place by the British and French. This was a grave disservice. It would have been best if political parties had been allowed to organize and elections held for post-colonial power, but the colonizers chose not to do that. The monarchs had variable success. Some created viable monarchies that established credibility with their people, and have passed power down from father to son (Jordan and Morocco are the two best examples). Other monarchies survived due to the ability to buy off opposition with petrodollars, which is the pattern in the Gulf states. But in places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya, military coups overthrew the kings and replaced them with military dictators who held power for decades.
The Arab world was in a long stasis from 1980 to 2003, where there was almost no change in political power anywhere. It was then that Bush invaded Iraq, threw out Saddam, and tried to create a pro-American democracy in Iraq. What he did instead was ignite a sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict that has consumed both Iraq and Syria. Iraq is now basically a Shia dictatorship and not a free country. Syria is a terrible mess from which there is no exit in the near future.
Islam is often blamed for the failings of the Arab states. Certainly the extreme form of Islam in Saudi Arabia holds that society back, and the attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to rule Egypt after the Arab Spring was disastrous. It paved the way for the return of military rule and the crushing of the entire spirit of the Arab Spring. But Islam has not prevented major progress in non-Arab societies. Turkey has done very well, and has a thriving and diverse industrial economy. Hopefully, Turkish democracy remains intact in the aftermath of the failed coup. Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan are all much more successful societies even though they are very Muslim. They are poorer than many Arab countries, especially the oil states, but their trajectory is consistently positive. They have much more open and democratic political systems, and their economies are dominated by the private sector. The best and the brightest are not looking for government jobs in these countries, and a college degree means something. Pakistan, for example, has more industrial exports than all the Arab countries combined. Even Iran, despite being a theocracy, has significant democratic elements to its government, and is not the centralized dictatorship of an Assad or El-Sisi. Being Muslim does not mean more wars either. In fact, except for the two wars of Saddam Hussein, one against Iran and the other against Kuwait, no two Muslim countries have gone to war with each other. Civil wars have been all too frequent, but actual wars between countries does not happen.
The Arab illness is not a genetic or inherent disease. It is the result of bad history and bad policy. It can be overcome by a society and leadership that has the proper vision and direction. But at this moment, just trying to end the Syrian, Yemeni, and Iraqi civil wars, and stopping the Sunni-Shia rivalry behind them, would be progress enough.