Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The opium of the Arabs

Stunted development


As American officials from Middle East envoy George Mitchell to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and from National Security Adviser James Jones to Dennis Ross, who's responsible for Mideast policy at the National Security Council, visit our region this week, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has just published its fifth report on conditions in the Arab world.

The UNDP tells us that many Arabs are shockingly poor; millions survive on less than $2 a day. Though 60 percent of the world's proven oil reserves are in the Middle East, the report's authors reveal that "Arab countries are actually less industrialized today than was the case four decades ago..."

We know from other sources that national identity is weak. It's been decades since the last colonial power quit the region, yet most Arabs still primarily identify themselves not as citizens of the country in which they live but as Arabs or Muslims. The Palestinian Arabs may be in a different category since their identity has been shaped by their confrontation with the Zionist enterprise.

Although the Arab fertility rate is declining (as more women obtain an education), young people with little hope of upward mobility today comprise a huge chunk of the Middle East population. Half of all Egyptians, for instance, are under 24. This helps explain why many turn to religious fundamentalism for solace.

In its coverage of the report, London's The Economist notes that most Arabs live under basically authoritarian regimes. The magazine, which is not known for its Zionist sympathies, points out that about the only genuinely free elections in the Arab world have been held under "occupation" - in the Palestinian Authority and Iraq. Still, insists The Economist, just as other parts of the Muslim world have transitioned to democracy so too can the Arabs. Perhaps. The magazine is right to say that democracy is more than just holding free elections; it also requires the inculcation of values such as tolerance and a respect for minority rights.

THE UNDP report was largely ignored by the state-controlled Arab media despite containing de rigueur criticism of Israel. The Arabs, and many Arabists in the West, have long embraced the neo-Marxist line that Middle East development has been stymied by outsiders - the oil companies, Western imperialists, Cold War warriors and, unsurprisingly, by the existence of a Jewish state in the region.

The Economist buys into some of this: "The job of the Arab moderates was made all the harder by Israel's recent wars in Gaza and Lebanon. Shocking television footage transformed both of these local fights into moments of pan-Arab and even pan-Muslim rage." The implication being that if only Israel had swallowed two separate cross border attacks in which Israeli soldiers were killed or taken hostage, the world would be a more peaceful place.

Still, with refreshing diversity, The Economist cites Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Egyptian pundit, who explains that Israel is "the opium of the Arabs." "Resistance" to Israel's existence, she implies, provides Arabs with a convenient excuse for putting off political and economic development.

To the opiate analogy one might add that "settlements" have become like crack cocaine - a habitual pretext used by Mahmoud Abbas and others for not negotiating an end to the conflict. In truth, the settlement issue would become moot once negotiators agreed on final borders.

IT IS to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands that we owe a debt of gratitude for bankrolling the website, Menassat. It's ostensibly intended to promote press freedom and development among the Arabs and recently offered insight into Arab elite thinking on the UNDP report.

Writing from Beirut, Saseen Kawzally quoted approvingly Columbia University's Joseph Massad in damming the report for adopting "the rhetoric and terminology used by the US and Israel." Massad further criticized the English-language version of the report for, supposedly, casting a modicum of blame for the Gaza fighting on Hamas.

But it is Kawzally's indignation at the UNDP report for relegating the "occupation" to eighth place in a list of factors inhibiting Arab development that we find especially instructive. Thank you, taxpayers of The Netherlands. Your money is being used to perpetuate Israel as the opium of the Arabs.

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