Arabs suffer from ten major problems. If they were to resolve three of them, their condition might improve. In the space below, I will only present a brief summary of each of these problems as I discuss them further in my upcoming book. Originally, the book was an idea for an article which I later expanded. I now find myself in the position where I need to condense my book.
First and foremost, the Arab World faces a fundamental contradiction between thought and reality. There is a huge gap between the Arab commitment to the “Arab Nation” which populates the Arab mindset and the reality of life in a nation-state which provides its citizens with a birth certificate, a passport, an education and healthcare, an entity most disrespect. At the same time, Arabs pride themselves in belonging to a wider imagined community of the “Arab Nation”. To use modern computer terminology, there is a significant discrepancy between the software of the “Arab Nation” and the hardware represented by the nation state, or the reality Arabs live in.
The second problem involves the gap between a proud Arab history and a rather wretched reality. How can Arabs celebrate and be proud of the glories of the past when, for example, the average annual per-capita income in a densely populated country such as Egypt remains below US$2000?
Problem number three regards the unhealthy relationship between economics and politics. In most countries around the world, individuals amass their wealth in the economic arena and then move from the world of capitalism and the private sector to the realm of politics and the public sector. In the Arab world, however, movement is the other war around, and politics and the private sector are one and the same. Arabs become involved in politics to enrich their private spheres and acquire wealth. This aberration means that many Arabs start off with politics to reach economic wealth.
Related to this issue is the fact that many parts of the Arab World suffer from the separation between those who control politics and those who exploit natural resources. In Sudan, for example, the Al Bashir government rules from Khartom whilst rebel groups such as the one led by John Garange have access to the southern oilfields. In Iraq, during Saddam’s rule, the Shiah majority controlled the oil fields near Basra in the South and the Kurds controlled the Northern fields around mosul and Kirkuk.
The Arab world suffers, fourthly, from political hypocrisy. While the state provides American military airplanes usage of its airstrips, it allows the Islamists and Arab Nationalists to rules its airwaves. A highly hypocritical situation emerges whereby respective Arab populations tune to satellite television while the American military establishes a presence on the ground.
The fifth and major problem rests in the use of language to denote responsibility. Arabs use the passive voice in their speech and say that, for example, “the train missed me” , or “the cigarette burnt me” , instead of assuming responsibility and affirming that “I missed the train”. Unlike the West, Arabs use their language to protect them from responsibility and blame. The use and abuse of such language where one is no longer a subject but an object encourages Arabs to believe that all their problems are caused by external factors such as the West or Israel, to name but a few.
Another important problem, our sixth, is the huge gap that exists between the formal and informal economies across the Arab World. In Egypt alone, the volume of the hidden economy is many times larger than the documented formal economy. This situation will not resolve itself. It requires a protracted effort to integrate the informal economy and the weaker state economy.
The seventh problem regards the principle of ownership, in some parts of the Arab World, by de facto acquisition or seizure, as opposed to legal ownership.
In Cairo, if one were to park their car in the street, someone will approach you and ask for a parking fee, as if he is bestowing ownership of that part of the street unto himself. Beggars might also divide parts of the city between each other so that each group or individual can claim a specific zone as their exclusive turf. Travelers will also notice, at the entrance to the men and women’s toilets at Cairo airport the presence of a porter asking them for money to use the facilities, despite them being owned by the state! One can give many other examples of institutions that have become private by acquisition and not by law.
Political movements that have grown to swallow the state they live under constitute the eighth problem facing the Arab World today. Hizbullah in Lebanon, or Hamas in Palestine, are perhaps the clearest examples of a militia that has taken over the streets, organizing military parades and showcasing their flags and banners. Hizbullah owns a satellite television channel; how then can it be considered anything less than a state if it possesses all its tools?
The ninth problem has to do with the divergence between market forces and political alliances. Across the Gulf, for example, one hears calls for a greater unity with Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan or even Somalia, within the context of a wider Arab Unity project. In reality, the markets in the Gulf countries are reliant on labour from Asian countries such as India, China, Indonesia and the Philippines, as any study will reveal. Why then do the populations of Gulf countries insist on strengthening ties with countries such as Tunisia when other relations might be much economically beneficial?
Last, but not least, is the “city state” problem that many Arab countries suffer from. Cairo, we are told, is Egypt. “We are going to Egypt” is how a person in upper Egypt or the Delta valley will describe their trip to the capital. Iraq is, or was, Baghdad; Syria in Damascus; the list goes on. If Arab countries do not succeed in bringing the populations of the peripheries to the fold, the nine aforementioned problems will only get worse. It is in the peripheries, at the edges of the big metropolis controlled by the state, that Arab people embrace with ease the “software” of the Arab Nation and become alienated from their own government and its “hardware”. This is especially true of Arab expatriates who work, past or present across the Arab Gulf.
All the problems I’ve discussed carry real consequences for the question of citizenship. On a theoretical level, how can one be Saudi or Egyptian and at the same time belong to an Arab Nation? But citizenship is also intimately linked to the economy. If one does not pay taxes, how can they claim citizenship? Can the person who does not pay taxes still have the right to political representation (whether to be represented or represent someone?) Compare and contrast this to the slogan of the American revolution: “no taxation without representation”. Finally, let me mention the problem of the veiled state. As a liberal, I have no problem with the veil as such. If a woman wanted to wear a veil, from head to toe, it is her personal choice. What I have a problem with, is the presence of veiled Arab states, some which are “Duwal Munaqabah” (or totally covered states) where developments are never public and visible. Let women wear the veil if they wish to do so, not the state. The Arab world desperately needs countries where the State is transparent, preferably short sleeved. As for women and the veil, that is an entirely different matter best left to a different article.