Study Warns of Stagnation in Arab Societies
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STUDY WARNS OF STAGNATION IN ARAB SOCIETIES
By Barbara Crossette
New York Times
July 2, 2002
A blunt new report by Arab intellectuals commissioned by the United Nations
warns that Arab societies are being crippled by a lack of political freedom,
the repression of women and an isolation from the world of ideas that
The survey, the Arab Human Development Report 2002, will be released today
The report notes that while oil income has transformed the landscapes of
some Arab countries, the region remains "richer than it is developed." Per
capita income growth has shrunk in the last 20 years to a level just above
that of sub-Saharan Africa. Productivity is declining. Research and
development are weak or nonexistent. Science and technology are dormant.
Intellectuals flee a stultifying if not repressive -- political and social
environment, it says.
Arab women, the report found, are almost universally denied advancement.
Half of them still cannot read or write. The maternal mortality rate is
double that of Latin America and four times that of East Asia.
"Sadly, the Arab world is largely depriving itself of the creativity and
productivity of half its citizens," the report concluded.
An advisory team of well-known Arabs in international public life was
assembled to oversee the study. They included Thoraya Obaid, a Saudi who is
executive director of the United Nations Population Fund; Mervat Tallawy, an
Egyptian diplomat who heads the Economic and Social Council for West Asia;
and Clovis Maksoud, who directs the Center for the Global South at American
University in Washington and was formerly the Arab League's representative
at the United Nations.
A team of nearly 30 authorities in various fields, including sociologists,
economists and experts on Arab culture presented papers. A core group drawn
from these authors and representing a wide variety of Middle Eastern and
Arab majority African nations then completed the report.
Nader Fergany, a labor economist and director of the Almishkat Center for
Research in Egypt, was chosen as the lead author. The report was published
in Arabic, English and French, with an editorial team in each language.
Women were represented at all stages of the formulation and writing of the
Planning for the report "started over a year ago, when we thought that there
was a serious development problem in the Arab countries," Rima Khalaf
Hunaidi, director of the United Nations Development Program's Arab regional
bureau and the driving force behind the survey, said in an interview in her
New York office. "There were some very scary signals that were specific to
Arab countries and not other regions."
Then came the attacks on the United States, giving the report unexpected new
relevance as explanations for Arab anger against the West are being sought.
The report, the first United Nations human development report devoted to a
single region, was prepared by Arab intellectuals from a variety of
disciplines, who do not fault others for what they see as the "deficits" in
contemporary Arab culture, Ms. Khalaf Hunaidi said.
Ms. Khalaf Hunaidi, 49, a former deputy prime minister of Jordan who led its
economic policy team, said that she had asked the authors, "to come and look
at this problem and decide: Why is Arab culture, why are Arab countries
"It's not outsiders looking at Arab countries," she said. "It's Arabs
deciding for themselves."
There are 280 million people in the 22 Arab countries covered by the report,
which was co-sponsored by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development,
a development finance institution set up by members of the Arab League. The
number of Arabs is expected to grow to between 410 million and 459 million
For the Palestinians in particular, the report says, human development is
all but impossible under Israeli occupation. Moreover, the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict "has been a cause and a pretext for delaying
democratic change," contended Ms. Khalaf Hunaidi, who was born in Kuwait to
Palestinian parents. She studied at the American University of Beirut and
Portland State University in Oregon, where she received a doctorate in
The report does not directly criticize Islamic militancy and its effects on
intellectual and economic growth, although Ms. Khalaf Hunaidi said this was
implicit in passages that refer to a less tolerant social environment.
Despite growing populations, the standard of living in Arab countries on the
whole has advanced considerably. Life expectancy is longer than the world
average of 67 years, the report noted. The level of abject poverty is the
world's lowest. Education spending is higher than elsewhere in the
But the use of the Internet is low. Filmmaking appears to be declining. The
authors also describe a "severe shortage" of new writing and a dearth of
translations of works from outside. "The whole Arab world translates about
330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates," the report
said. In the 1,000 years since the reign of the Caliph Mamoun, it concludes,
the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in just one
Laila Abou-Saif, an Egyptian writer and theater director whose theater in
Cairo was closed in 1979 after she produced a play that satirized polygamy,
said in an interview that the Islamic factor must be acknowledged in
explaining the condition of the Arab world, which was a center of arts and
Ms. Abou-Saif, a Coptic Christian who now lives in the United States, said
that creativity among Arabs now often hewed to religious themes.
Books are not being translated, in part because of Islamic pressures, said
Ms. Abou-Saif, the author of "Middle East Journal: A Woman's Journey Into
the Heart of the Arab World" (Scribner, 1990). "A whole gamut of religious
literature are best sellers," she said.
Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University and
the author, most recently, of "The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's
Odyssey" (Vintage Books, 1999) said in an interview that there is a
pervasive sense that life in the Arab world is repressed by both the state
and religious vigilantes.
"Arabs today feel monitored," he said, attributing a decrease in
intellectual freedom to the growing power of a lower middle class whose
members are literate but not broadly educated.
This group shows "its lack of hospitality to anyone of free spirit, anyone
who is a dissident, anyone who is different," he said.
Mr. Ajami said that for many Arab intellectuals the only option has been
exile. "There is a deep, deep nostalgia today in the Arab world," he said.
"Societies looking ahead and feeling a positive movement never succumb to
Above all, there is no movement in politics, he said. Rulers, even elected,
stay in power for life and create dynasties. "People just don't know how to
overthrow, how to reform, how to change them."
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