Seizing opportunities in today’s fast-changing world

We should not underestimate the wealth and power of modern technologies.
Sunday 18/11/2018
A sculpture of a man with a laptop by Syrian artist Wissam Muases at the Art Residency Aley in eastern Lebanon. (Reuters)
New frontier. A sculpture of a man with a laptop by Syrian artist Wissam Muases at the Art Residency Aley in eastern Lebanon. (Reuters)

Seize the opportunity. This is one of the first prerequisites of wisdom that one learns in life. True, those who rush things can be blamed for their rashness but the larger blame is likely to be directed at those who keep on hesitating at the risk of letting unique opportunities slip through their fingers.

At the level of individuals, those who falter all the time only inflict harm on themselves. Faltering at the level of countries and nations has more dramatic and fateful consequences.

Take, the 1950s and 1960s. During those decades, the Arab world achieved great cultural and social leaps forward. The former colonial powers were licking their wounds from the second world war and rebuilding what was ravaged. After the horrors of Nazism and fascism, Europe and the rest of the world no longer had any stomach for hegemonic and colonial ideologies.

That period offered a tremendous opportunity for the Arab world because it combined liberal ideas inherited from colonisation with a strong indigenous yearning for freedom and progress. No wonder then that that period produced one of the best generations of Arab intellectuals and artists and painted a picture of changing societies hungry for knowledge, open on the world and eager to participate in the worldwide impulse for progress.

The second window of opportunity for the Arab world came with the oil boom of the 1970s. Petrodollars flowed in large quantities, whether directly or indirectly, into the Middle East and most of the Arab countries. The oil-producing countries benefited directly from oil revenues and many other Arab countries benefited indirectly through the remittances sent by their citizens working in the rich oil countries.

Some Arab nations embarked on huge development projects that included various aspects of economic and social life, from infrastructure to education, to embryonic installations for industries that had never existed in the region before.

Except for major historical cities, most of what we see today in Arab cities in terms of buildings and infrastructure is the product of the oil-based expenditures of the post-1970s period.

The third opportunity for the Arab world came with the communications revolution and the internet. This is an unprecedented revolution in which the concept of the global village is not a mere cliche. Satellite TV and the internet opened prospects beyond what books or radio and television offered. With them, one could see what everyone else in the world was seeing. One could instantaneously communicate with others. With smartphones, all these media and much more became portable and available to the user anytime, anywhere and accessible literally in the palm of one’s hand.

What is frustrating in the Arab world is that these great opportunities were either not exploited to their fullest or subsequently lost. The reasons are many: cultural rigidity, outdated educational systems, the demise of free thought as it fell captive to religious extremism and the systematic waste of wealth in wars, conflicts and corruption.

Instead of exploiting the global revolutions in agriculture, technology and biotechnology, whole generations wasted precious time in useless polemics about the sex of angels or the exact list of benefits to enjoy in Paradise.

Surely, the Arab world does not need to compare itself to the West or even to global projects in the Far East or Latin America, since countries in those areas have also suffered from colonialism and foreign hegemony. The Arab region, however, which is busy contemplating its past, needs to look at what has been achieved culturally, socially, financially and on the level of development in the past few decades.

There is no need for miracles but only for efforts to build on previous achievements. Building on achievements may seem like a forced return to the past but it is far better than accepting the status quo and definitely more productive than accepting to stagnate in a world ruled by turbaned heads and pseudo-religious fantasies. Since the project of building national states has failed in the Arab world, why not invest in the project of building citizens or in building oneself?

There are many tools available for that end. We should not underestimate the wealth and power of modern technologies. In the past, it was a struggle to get hold of a book to read. Today a book can be downloaded in a matter of seconds. An art critic used to be unable to afford art magazines and books. The internet makes those and everything written or drawn by man available in a blink of an eye. Access to scientific and academic papers and research is unrestrained.

If that is the case, why are social networks in our world so full of “gossip” and useless banter rather than full of literary and cultural salons or scientific workshops?

At an individual level, there is no purpose expecting too much from the state. The national civil state in the post-“Arab spring” era has enough of everything but the biggest fear is that the current generations do not seize the available opportunities for personal growth just because their governments failed to seize the opportunities for building better national states.

Since the wider global pan-Arab project continues to falter, why not revert to smaller cultural, intellectual and scientific “villages” united by the same desire to save ourselves first and then, perhaps, by much larger visions as experience accumulates and bigger opportunities grace the horizons?

Who knows?

Perhaps these small groups may someday reach a critical mass capable of driving fast change and allowing us to catch up with a fast-moving world that waits for nobody.