Study Warns of Stagnation in Arab Societies

July 2, 2002

Study Warns of Stagnation in Arab Societies


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 stifles creativity.

The survey, the Arab Human Development Report 2002,

will be released today in Cairo.

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


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 report.

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 lagging behind?"

"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 by 2020.

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 systems science.

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 developing world.

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 year.

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 sciences.

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


"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 nostalgia." 

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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