Three Points That Capture the Arab World’s Problems

“The Arab region has for the most part not created stable, productive, and equitable civil states defined by modernity’s benefits because for decades it has functioned under three simultaneous dominant contexts: neo-patrimonial states, neo-patriarchal societies, and neo-liberal peripheral economies.”

When my friend and colleague in analysis of Middle Eastern and global issues Dr. Adib Nehmeh speaks, I listen carefully, because his insights always clarify critical aspects of the current violent conditions around our region that deserve wider appreciation.

Credible, honest analysis by Dr. Nehmeh and others at a United Nations workshop in Beirut this week can help us get to the heart of an issue at hand. It can help us avoid the alluring but diversionary dramatics offered by political and media figures and others who prioritize fame, fortune, and entertainment over sensible analysis of our core problems, and in so doing it helps us chart a path to working together to find appropriate solutions to them.

So when I attended a two-day workshop this week at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in Beirut entitled “Governance and Institutional Transformations in Conflict-Affected Arab Countries,” I expected to participate in some spirited discussions on the problems facing many Arab states and some of the possible solutions to them in post-conflict times to come. The host unit within ESCWA, the “Emerging and Conflict Related Issues Division,” is respected for arranging useful gatherings like this one, anchored in thoughtful and substantive background papers, and resulting in very pertinent synthesis reports and recommendations.

Very substantive and spirited presentations and discussions by two dozen experts from many countries and sectors analyzed why there is so much tension, violence, and state fragmentation across Arab lands, and what can be done in future to rebuild stable governance systems. Regional conflicts have killed and injured millions of people, mostly civilians, and displaced over 22 million others. Beyond the ravages to human lives and socioeconomic opportunities, chronic conflict has also shattered state and social institutions, polarized societies, and fractured social cohesion. Terror from our region increasingly plagues other countries.

Erratic social, political, economic, and administrative accountability mechanisms throughout the Arab region have long marginalized tens of millions of people; this has led to massive unmet human needs, rising poverty, widening income inequality, high unemployment, limited political representation, and the consequent threats to pluralism and social cohesion. The workshop sought to explore how credible, legitimate, and effective governance structures in conflict-affected contexts can be reconstructed one day when societies transform out of conflict.

Adib Nehmeh provided a very succinct comment that captured for me the important wider contexts that help explain why the Arab World in the past several decades has descended into its current state of violence and fragmentation. He noted: “The Arab region has for the most part not created stable, productive, and equitable civil states defined by modernity’s benefits because for decades it has functioned under three simultaneous dominant contexts: neo-patrimonial states, neo-patriarchal societies, and neo-liberal peripheral economies.”

Any indigenous or foreign analysis of the conditions and trends in the Arab World that ignores these three critical factors will always come up short in both understanding why our region is in such a mess, and in suggesting appropriate policy responses by Arab or foreign governments. The three simultaneous defining realities of the contemporary Arab world that Dr. Nehmeh points to have totally shattered any possibility of ordinary citizens drawing on their wellspring of decent values to shape productive, satisfying, and stable societies. Since the 1970s—when military-based families consolidated their hold over Arab power structures—citizens and states have never had the opportunity to negotiate a social contract that served their common rights and aspirations.

Hundreds of millions of Arab men and women have remained almost totally disenfranchised since then, due to a deadly combination that few other societies around the world have endured for decades on end: autocratic government systems anchored in military and security rule, conservative and increasingly defensive social structures (family, tribe, sect, ethnicity), and sustained economic pauperization and vulnerability heavily reflecting global neo-liberal rules that favor corporate profits and crony capitalism interests over human and citizen rights. (We have suffered other negative impacts from constant foreign military action in our region, and the many consequences of the Arab-Israeli conflict.)

The three power realities that Dr. Nehmeh mentions provide as good a starting point as I know of for serious attempts to analyze or correct the threats that face our societies, and that increasingly spill over into foreign countries. They provide critical clues to the underlying reasons for our tensions, violence, polarization, sectarianism, fragmentation, and other ailments.

The bad news is that if these underlying drivers of citizen disenfranchisement and discontent are ignored—as they continue to be in prevailing Arab and foreign analyses and policies—we should only expect current trends to worse. The good news is that all these problems have been caused by faulty policies implemented by human beings, and all of them can be corrected by more sensible and responsible human beings—but only people who dare to understand and then correct the distortions and constraints that are so well captured by Dr. Nehmeh’s succinct three-point summary.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global