UN executive: Arabs are paying for political failures
Beirut - What caused the “big explosion” in the Arab region that has been dormant for long decades? It’s a simple question that has no clear-cut answer.
Whether ageing dictatorships, corruption, extreme poverty, human rights violations, lack of freedoms or social media was behind such a “deadly outburst”, the end sum is more foreign interference, an unprecedented level of violence and a large-scale displacement and destruction that is changing the face of this region.
It will take years of sacrifice and more than $600 billion — if the guns fall silent today.
Most importantly, it will need a clear vision to rebuild the region, said Abdullah Dardari, deputy executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).
“I think the region in a sense is paying for its failure to achieve governance reforms that should have gone hand in hand with economic and social changes,” Dardari said, presenting his interpretation of what has been happening in the region since the outbreak of the “Arab spring”.
In an interview with The Arab Weekly, Dardari explained that societal explosion occurs when “expectations exceed what the systems could deliver.
“If political change doesn’t happen, there’s going to be an explosion,” he said, referring to uprisings that broke out first in Tunisia in 2010 and then in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen the year after and brought down four long-time dictators.
Dardari observed that change was “actually the result of development” rather than lack of development. In the last 30 years, he said, the Arab region has achieved “tremendous progress” in education, health, social protection and even in reducing poverty. This was magnified by the emergence of an expanding middle class at a time when “governance in the region remained stagnant”.
Five Arab countries, mainly Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, were among the top 20 performers in human development in the UN development report, while Egypt, Tunisia and Syria exceeded expectations in 2010 in achieving Millennium development goals.
Dardari blamed the “crack” in Arab societies on the “lack of synergy between economic and social changes on one hand and governance and political changes on the other. This, he said, explains “why young Arabs had more expectations than the economic and social systems could deliver and hence they wanted to express their frustration. Added to that is a long list of other “influencing” factors. Among them, he said, was a growing foreign interference that took advantage of the weaknesses of Arab society and “the essential question of the occupation of Palestine, which remains an open wound inflaming the region”.
Many questions are yet to be answered, including: Did the region have enough organised political movements to lead such a change? Why did such a change occur in 2011 and not before?
Dardari, who served as minister of planning in Syria from 2006 to 2008, said he was not surprised by the outbreak of popular movements in some Arab countries, including his own, but rather by the level of violence that accompanied them.
The threats facing the region are huge, he said, adding, “It is one of the least productive regions” in the world. He emphasised the need for “completely reversing the situation” by investing in economic diversification, integration and research development.
He warned that “if we don’t change the productivity of Arab economies, no matter how much natural resources we have, it will not be sufficient to fill the gap.”
The other major challenges include the lack of representative institutions, weak infrastructure and an education system that needs “a paradigm shift” towards innovation. Social protection, the role of the private sector and civil society, as well as the media, need to be addressed.
Dardari cautioned that these issues should be tackled with “a clear vision and strategic planning,” emphasising that “the threats facing the region from inside and outside require dramatic action in the areas of security and economic growth.”
On ESCWA’s call for Arab integration at a time the region is falling apart, Dardari said the developments “only vindicate” such a call. “One major element for getting out of the situation in which we are today, is through Arab integration … to the benefit of a large market of 400 million Arabs…
“Each country, on its own, proved unable to achieve sufficient economies of scale conducive to higher growth, higher employment, innovation and satisfaction of youth expectations. Each Arab country alone is too small to do so, even the largest of them. ”
Arab integration has become “a must and a prerequisite for our future” in view of the “existential threats” facing the Arab states, Dardari stressed.
He argued that “a supra-national identity of an Arab citizenship is a must … for the Arab region to come out of this debacle.”
Calling it a wake-up call, Dardari said: “Finally, people are going back to their Arab identity.
”Such a new identity emerging out of this nightmare should, however, be based on inclusive political, social and economic systems, empowerment of the ordinary citizen, economic diversification, science and technology innovation and regional integration.
“If we don’t build our future on those pillars we’ll just repeat the same mistakes.”
Although he acknowledged that the situation in the Arab region is “disastrous”, Dardari still maintained a sense of optimism for the future. “This part of the world has seen worse disasters than what we’re seeing today and has risen much more successfully than one would have expected,” he said.
He estimated the losses incurred by the ongoing conflicts in the region at around $600 billion. The figure includes damage on the infrastructure and loss in gross domestic product (GDP) of countries that were either directly or indirectly affected. He said the bill could be “manageable”, taking into consideration “the fortunes and resources of the region which can turn this challenge into a great rebuilding opportunity”.
But a prerequisite for success is to have the “right representative institutions to manage a reconstruction exercise of $600 billion, take difficult decisions and make painful choices”.
Arab countries should not expect any foreign help in post-war reconstruction, he said. “Reconstruction can only be done by Arab countries … Europe and the US have no more resources for us.
“We need to stretch and reach out to old and new centres of economic powers in the world,” he said, referring to China and the BRICS countries, which include Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa, in addition to China. But, he wondered, do the Arabs have the convincing argument and a clear vision?
“Elements of such an Arab vision are evolving … but I don’t think anyone could claim that such a vision exists yet,” Dardari said.