The 18th Arab League Summit was held in Khartoum this week. Never one for pulling punches, Lebanon’s Daily Star summed it up as “a venue where bigoted dinosaurs mingle with tyrannical mummies”:
As expected, the delegates were more preoccupied with milking the last drops of mileage out of the Danish doodles than doing anything to help Darfur. In what Al-Jazeera.Net calls “a coup for the Sudanese president,” they rejected the imposition of a UN-led force on the killing fields without his permission — which is forthcoming as soon as Switzerland invades Australia. Admittedly, it was agreed to fund the sadly ineffectual African Union (AU) force with about $150 million; but it has to be said that the offer sounds distinctly more impressive before learning that it will take effect a day after the AU’s mandate expires on September 30. (Putting two and two together here, we may infer that they already know Khartoum intends to refuse renewal.) So far the Arab League has contributed less than one day’s running costs since the force was created in 2004.
This is not to suggest any lack of generosity. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia generously passed to Egypt the right to host next year’s summit. The League also remains the only regional organization whose member states have generously ceded the formal leadership to a single country: since its founding in 1945, the Secretary-General has always been Egyptian (though Egypt was suspended for a while after the Camp David accords with Israel).
But the Arab region has bigger problems — ones that, in a sane world, which ours of course is not, would have been addressed at the summit. Below are some statistics compiled from a number of sources, pertaining to the region stretching from Morocco to Iraq and encompassing a population of 289 million, or five percent of humankind.
Wealth: Although Arab nations control three-quarters of the world’s energy resources, their combined GDP is lesser than Spain’s and a mere fifth of Japan’s. Without oil, they would have a GDP equivalent of Nokia’s revenues.
Growth: The growth in per capita income has stalled for two decades, to a level just above that of sub-Saharan Africa. According to the 2002 Arab Human Development Report, it averaged 0.5 percent between 1982 and 2002. (In comparison, between 1993 and 2003, Vietnam’s GDP tripled.) Sweden, at 9 million inhabitants, attracts more foreign capital than the entire Arab world put together.
Employment: The Arab Labor Organization reported in 2003 that about 25 percent of the active population in the Arab states are unemployed, ranging from 6–17 percent in Gulf countries to over 75 percent in Palestine and Iraq. For young people the unemployment rate is over 50 percent. Educated persons are especially marginalized: 57% of the unemployed Arab population have been educated to secondary level or higher.
Economic equity: Despite the exorbitant petroleum resources of their countries, more than one in five Arabs lives on less than $2 a day, according to the UN. In Egypt — the most populous Arab nation, and one of the least inequitable — 1 percent of the population owns 90 percent of the wealth. In a country that is second in the world in terms of Mercedes Benz ownership, about half of the urban population live in absolute poverty and an estimated 60 percent of same dwell in shanty settlements. Inequality is increasing throughout the region.
Female participation in work force: A 2004 UNIFEM report shows that Arab countries have the lowest female employment rate of any region in the world, at only 28 percent.
Attitudes to gender equality: A survey conducted by the Egyptian government and reported by The Guardian in November 2004 found that one in three women has been beaten by her husband. Eighty-six percent of the women regarded this as normal. Twenty-six percent of women in their 20s believed that they deserve a beating if they burn dinner; 42 percent that they do so if they spend too much money; and 65 percent that they do so if they talk to another man. Conditions are probably as bad or worse in most other Arab nations.
Contentedness: One in two Arab youths wants to emigrate. Of those who make it to Europe, over 90 percent stay for good.
Demography: Thirty-eight percent of Arabs are under 14 years old; 60 percent are under 20 years old. The population of the Arab countries is projected to grow to between 410 million and 459 million by 2020.
Urbanization: In the Maghreb countries and Syria, every second inhabitant is now a city dweller. In Iraq, the proportion is two out of three. It is predicted that by 2015, 70 per cent of Northern Africa’s population will live in cities.
Education: About 65 million adult Arabs are illiterate, two-thirds of them women. Education expenditure per capita has declined over the last two decades; in the mid-90s it was only 10 percent of that in industrialized countries. Some 10 million children between 6 and 15 years old do not attend school.
Internet use: Less than four percent of Arabs have access to the Internet, according to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This is a lower rate even than in sub-Saharan Africa and means that the region accounts for just 0.5 percent of Internet users. Only one in a hundred Arabs has a personal computer.
Literature: The 2003 Arab Human Development Report speaks of a “severe shortage” of new writing by Arabs. In addition, fewer than 4.4 books per million people are translated throughout the Arab world annually, as compared, for instance, with 519 in Hungary and 920 in Spain. Arab publishers translate only about 330 books yearly, or one-fifth the number rendered into Greek. Incidentally, this is not a new development: during the past millennium, the Arab world has translated into Arabic only as many books as Spanish publishers now annually translate into Spanish. The printing press was banned in the Middle East into the 19th century.
Science: Arab nations spend less than one-seventh of the world average annual investment in research, in relation to the size of overall national economies. There are only a handful Nobel Prize winners from Arab countries.
A couple of observations in closing. First, it is no mystery that, as The Angry Arab notes in connection with the summit, not a single Arab leader “is liked or respected by his people. Not one. In fact, every one of them is despised, deeply despised, by his people.” Second, this is not about Islam per se, or at least not exclusively. Only about 14 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arabs, and of the larger group, more than half live under elected governments (e.g. Indonesia, India, Turkey, Nigeria, Bangladesh). Many non-Arab Muslim nations are also more prosperous and have greater social mobility, as well as gender equity, than the Arab average.
Governance: Monarchy remains the most dominant form of governance in the Arab countries, eight of which have the institution. Also, the longevity of rulers makes for few successions. Since its founding in 1932, Saudi Arabia has had only six rulers. Bahrain has had three rulers since 1971; Jordan has had four kings since 1946; Kuwait has had four emirs since 1950; Morocco has had three kings since 1957; Oman has had two sultans since 1932; Qatar has had three emirs since 1971. Among the republics, the UAE has had four presidents since 1971; Egypt three since 1952; Tunisia two since 1956. It is noteworthy that in no Arab state has an opposition party yet taken power upon winning an election, unless the Palestinian occupied territories be counted as one.
Regional cooperation: After a half-century of “Arab unity” there is not even a customs union in place. There is less trade between Arab countries even than between sub-Saharan ones.
Liberty: According to two international indices that are widely used to compare levels of freedom — including free speech, civil rights, political rights, free press and government accountability — the Arab region has the lowest level of freedom of any of the world’s seven regions.
Third, those who wonder why populist Islamism is on the march across the Arab world can start wondering instead what the hell to do about it.