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08/06/2009

Today's Middle East

Bernard Lewis is the Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and is one of the preeminent scholars in his field. For a while now I’ve been meaning to pass on some of his thoughts on the Arab World in the 21st Century, as set forth in an essay for the March/April 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs. Following are some excerpts. 

--- 

“The modern peace process began when President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt, fearing that the growing Soviet presence in the region was a greater threat to Arab independence than Israel could ever constitute, made peace with Israel in 1979. He was followed in 1994 by King Hussein of Jordan and, less formally, by other Arab states that developed some commercial and quasi0diplomatic contacts with Israel. Dialogue between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization led to some measure of formal mutual recognition and, more significant, to a withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the establishment of more or less autonomous Palestinian authorities in these places. 

“But the conflict continues. Important sections of the Palestinian movement have refused to recognize the negotiations or any agreements and are continuing the armed struggle. Even some of those who have signed agreements – notably Yasir Arafat – have later shown a curious ambivalence toward their implementation. From the international discourse in English and other European languages, it would seem that most of the Arab states and some members of the Palestinian leadership have resigned themselves to accepting Israel as a state. But the discourse in Arabic – in broadcasts, sermons, speeches, and school textbooks – is far less conciliatory, portraying Israel as an illegitimate invader that must be destroyed. If the conflict is about the size of Israel, then long and difficult negotiations can eventually resolve the problem. But if the conflict is about the existence of Israel, then serious negotiation is impossible. There is no compromise position between existence and nonexistence.” 

--- 

“The state of the region’s economy, and the resulting social and political situation, is a source of increasing concern in the Arab world. For the time being, oil continues to provide enormous wealth, directly to some countries in the region and indirectly to others. But these vast sums of money are creating problems as well as benefits. For one thing, oil wealth has strengthened autocratic governments and inhibited democratic development. Oil-rich rulers have no need to levy taxes and therefore no need to satisfy elected representatives. (In the Arab world, the converse of a familiar dictum is true: No representation without taxation.) 

“In addition to strengthening autocracy, oil wealth has also inhibited economic development. Sooner or later, oil will be either exhausted or replaced as an energy source, and the wealth and power that it provides will come to an end. Some more farsighted Arab governments, aware of this eventuality, have begun to encourage and foster other kinds of economic development. Some of the Persian Gulf states are showing impressive expansion, especially in tourism and international finance. But the returns accruing from these sectors are still limited compared to the enormous wealth derived from oil…. 

“Over the last quarter of a century, real GDP per capita has fallen throughout the Arab world. In 1999, the GDP of all the Arab countries combined stood at $531.2 billion, less than that of Spain. Today, the total non-oil exports of the entire Arab world (which has a population of approximately 300 million people) amount to less than those of Finland (a country of only five million inhabitants). Throughout the 1990s, exports from the region, 70 percent of which are oil or oil-related products, grew at a rate of 1.5 percent, far below the average global rate of six percent. The number of books translated every year into Arabic in the entire Arab world is one-fifth the number translated into Greek in Greece. And the number of books, both those in their original language and those translated, published per million people in the Arab world is very low compared with the figures for other regions. 

“The situation regarding science and technology is as bad or worse. A striking example is the number of patents registered in the United States between 1980 and 2000: from Saudi Arabia, there were 171; from Egypt, 77; from Kuwait, 52; from the United Arab Emirates, 32; from Syria, 20; and from Jordan, 15 – compared with 16,328 from South Korea and 7,652 from Israel. Out of six world regions, that comprising the Middle East and North Africa received the lowest freedom rating from Freedom House. The Arab countries also have the highest illiteracy rates and one of the lowest numbers of active research scientists with frequently cited articles. Only sub-Saharan Africa has a lower average standard of living. 

“Another shock came with the 2003 publication in China of a list of the 500 best universities in the world. The list did not include a single one of the more than 200 universities in the Arab countries. Since then, new rankings have appeared every year. The Arab universities remain absent….In an era of total and untrammeled independence for the Arab world, these failings can no longer be attributed to imperial oppressors or other foreign malefactors.” 

--- 

“Today, there are two competing diagnoses of the ills of the region, each with its own appropriate prescription. According to one, the trouble is all due to infidels and their local dupes and imitators. The remedy is to resume the millennial struggle against the infidels in the West and return to God-given laws and traditions. According to the other diagnosis, it is the old ways, now degenerate and corrupt, that are crippling the Arab world. The cure is openness and freedom in the economy, society, and the state – in a word, genuine democracy. But the road to democracy – and to freedom – is long and difficult, with many obstacles along the way. It is there, however, and there are some visionary leaders who are trying to follow it. At the moment, both Islamic theocracy and liberal democracy are represented in the region.  The future place of the Arab world in history will depend, in no small measure, on the outcome of the struggle between them.” 

Hot Spots returns next week.
 
Brian Trumbore


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Hot Spots

08/06/2009

Today's Middle East

Bernard Lewis is the Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and is one of the preeminent scholars in his field. For a while now I’ve been meaning to pass on some of his thoughts on the Arab World in the 21st Century, as set forth in an essay for the March/April 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs. Following are some excerpts. 

--- 

“The modern peace process began when President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt, fearing that the growing Soviet presence in the region was a greater threat to Arab independence than Israel could ever constitute, made peace with Israel in 1979. He was followed in 1994 by King Hussein of Jordan and, less formally, by other Arab states that developed some commercial and quasi0diplomatic contacts with Israel. Dialogue between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization led to some measure of formal mutual recognition and, more significant, to a withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the establishment of more or less autonomous Palestinian authorities in these places. 

“But the conflict continues. Important sections of the Palestinian movement have refused to recognize the negotiations or any agreements and are continuing the armed struggle. Even some of those who have signed agreements – notably Yasir Arafat – have later shown a curious ambivalence toward their implementation. From the international discourse in English and other European languages, it would seem that most of the Arab states and some members of the Palestinian leadership have resigned themselves to accepting Israel as a state. But the discourse in Arabic – in broadcasts, sermons, speeches, and school textbooks – is far less conciliatory, portraying Israel as an illegitimate invader that must be destroyed. If the conflict is about the size of Israel, then long and difficult negotiations can eventually resolve the problem. But if the conflict is about the existence of Israel, then serious negotiation is impossible. There is no compromise position between existence and nonexistence.” 

--- 

“The state of the region’s economy, and the resulting social and political situation, is a source of increasing concern in the Arab world. For the time being, oil continues to provide enormous wealth, directly to some countries in the region and indirectly to others. But these vast sums of money are creating problems as well as benefits. For one thing, oil wealth has strengthened autocratic governments and inhibited democratic development. Oil-rich rulers have no need to levy taxes and therefore no need to satisfy elected representatives. (In the Arab world, the converse of a familiar dictum is true: No representation without taxation.) 

“In addition to strengthening autocracy, oil wealth has also inhibited economic development. Sooner or later, oil will be either exhausted or replaced as an energy source, and the wealth and power that it provides will come to an end. Some more farsighted Arab governments, aware of this eventuality, have begun to encourage and foster other kinds of economic development. Some of the Persian Gulf states are showing impressive expansion, especially in tourism and international finance. But the returns accruing from these sectors are still limited compared to the enormous wealth derived from oil…. 

“Over the last quarter of a century, real GDP per capita has fallen throughout the Arab world. In 1999, the GDP of all the Arab countries combined stood at $531.2 billion, less than that of Spain. Today, the total non-oil exports of the entire Arab world (which has a population of approximately 300 million people) amount to less than those of Finland (a country of only five million inhabitants). Throughout the 1990s, exports from the region, 70 percent of which are oil or oil-related products, grew at a rate of 1.5 percent, far below the average global rate of six percent. The number of books translated every year into Arabic in the entire Arab world is one-fifth the number translated into Greek in Greece. And the number of books, both those in their original language and those translated, published per million people in the Arab world is very low compared with the figures for other regions. 

“The situation regarding science and technology is as bad or worse. A striking example is the number of patents registered in the United States between 1980 and 2000: from Saudi Arabia, there were 171; from Egypt, 77; from Kuwait, 52; from the United Arab Emirates, 32; from Syria, 20; and from Jordan, 15 – compared with 16,328 from South Korea and 7,652 from Israel. Out of six world regions, that comprising the Middle East and North Africa received the lowest freedom rating from Freedom House. The Arab countries also have the highest illiteracy rates and one of the lowest numbers of active research scientists with frequently cited articles. Only sub-Saharan Africa has a lower average standard of living. 

“Another shock came with the 2003 publication in China of a list of the 500 best universities in the world. The list did not include a single one of the more than 200 universities in the Arab countries. Since then, new rankings have appeared every year. The Arab universities remain absent….In an era of total and untrammeled independence for the Arab world, these failings can no longer be attributed to imperial oppressors or other foreign malefactors.” 

--- 

“Today, there are two competing diagnoses of the ills of the region, each with its own appropriate prescription. According to one, the trouble is all due to infidels and their local dupes and imitators. The remedy is to resume the millennial struggle against the infidels in the West and return to God-given laws and traditions. According to the other diagnosis, it is the old ways, now degenerate and corrupt, that are crippling the Arab world. The cure is openness and freedom in the economy, society, and the state – in a word, genuine democracy. But the road to democracy – and to freedom – is long and difficult, with many obstacles along the way. It is there, however, and there are some visionary leaders who are trying to follow it. At the moment, both Islamic theocracy and liberal democracy are represented in the region.  The future place of the Arab world in history will depend, in no small measure, on the outcome of the struggle between them.” 

Hot Spots returns next week.
 
Brian Trumbore