Arab world needs new social contract

Sunday 26/06/2016

From time to time, pundits in and outside the Arab world take on momentous themes and begin the process of analysing, synthe­sising and opining so thoroughly that readers may begin to believe that these issues resonate with Arab masses. Such is the recent imbroglio about the legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

I am in Jordan, having just passed through National Independence Day, the 100th Anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt, the anniversary of King Abdullah’s coronation, the dissolution of the lower house of Parliament and upcoming elections and several notable birthdays.

There is little or no public interest in discussing Sykes-Picot, even though it is in many ways directly linked to Sharif Hussein bin Ali’s move to overthrow Ottoman rule.

What is on people’s minds is the same agenda since the Arab uprisings emerged in late 2010 — economic opportunity, personal dignity enshrined in human and civil rights protections, government and private sector accountability and derivatives from these core issues.

As my friend Rami Khouri has argued, there is plenty of blame to go around as to why the Arab world, which once had one of the highest education rates in the developing world, has gone astray in terms of its human, social, and economic development.

He writes: “So by all means let us recall Sykes-Picot and its consequent tumultuous century but let us also summon honesty and integrity in analysing all the regional and global factors that have led to today’s horror shows of stunted, staggered and shattered Arab statehood. We did this to ourselves, to be sure, but not only by ourselves; we had considerable assistance from many others in the region and the world. This was one of the world’s first global joint ventures in deviant political behaviour.”

I talked to dozens of people in Lebanon about “who to blame” for the current state of disarray. Beyond half-hearted references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, respondents mentioned economic issues, transparency in public and private sector transactions and political accountability as the common obstacles that eroding Arab countries face today, themes consistent with the Arab uprisings.

Regardless of their positions on Syrian refugees, a very complex topic in Jordan, the bottom line is that Arabs I spoke with from Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan look at the governance in their countries and the region as sources of the most significant obstacles to development.

Their responses varied from a country’s inability to stand up to external pressures, inability to agree on internal priorities in a consistent programme, weak institutions, meddling by neighbouring troublemakers that siphons off needed domestic investments, weak and corrupt government institutions that should protect citizens to the deeply held feelings that nothing can be done anyway.

Jordan is a test case worth assessing. With its access to its Syrian and Iraqi markets greatly diminished by road closures caused by the Islamic State (ISIS), Jordan is suffering mightily. Saudi Arabia has negotiated a new investment agreement and there are ongoing negotiations with the European Union that could boost exports but months are passing, refugee numbers are increasing, personal savings are dwindling, and costs are building across the board.

Citizens are troubled by the opaqueness of their futures as the economic situation continues to decline and political solutions seem like more words on paper. International donors are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Jordan but the lower and middle socio-economic classes do not have a sense that prosperity is any nearer. Much of the funding is directed towards increasing employment for Jordanians and Syrian refugees but significant change within the next year is elusive.

Without open borders and greater market access, significant direct foreign and national investments in Jordan will not find opportunities for projects to generate the hundreds of thousands of jobs needed in the coming years.

Looking across the region, a similar profile emerges — lack of stability in Lebanon, reduced growth expectations in Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Algeria, continuing security pressures on Tunisia and Morocco and Egypt’s reluctance to open public space to competition in business and ideas, as well as the chaos in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, make the glimmer of a silver lining even more remote.

None of these conditions can be attributed either directly or indirectly to the false legacy of Sykes-Picot. Without a new social contract among a country’s citizens and with their governments, one based on mutual respect and shared commitments to resolve common challenges, prospects will remain difficult to divine even as pundits continue to blame others for the Arab present.

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