BEIRUT — Few people in the Arab world or abroad will take seriously the regular Arab Summit meeting of heads of state in Jordan this week, which is a tragedy for all concerned. Pan-Arab joint action could have generated worldwide respect for the views and policies of sovereign Arab states, and could have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of men, women and children across our region, who now gravitate steadily towards lives of chronic vulnerability and suffering.
These two positive trends broadly did happen in the initial half-century of Arab independence and modern statehood, between the 1920s and 1970s, when total Arab population grew from 60 million to 150 million people. That trajectory reversed itself in the past 50 years, as Arab sovereignty, self-determination, and independence have all frayed visibly at the edges, while the living conditions and future wellbeing of the 400 million Arabs today have deteriorated steadily for at least half the population.
One reason for this is that Arab leaders have become more distant from their own citizens. They rarely if ever feel the daily pain and discomfort that ordinary families experience when electricity is cut off for six or ten hours a day, fresh water taps emit saline water from over-exploited aquifers, or children aged 8 or 12 come home from school reporting that they have graduated to the next class, while testing results show that almost half these same students effectively cannot read, write or do basic maths.
Arab summitry has always had an element of pageantry, usually with sincere intentions. Yet the problem remains — even worsens every year, as Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, and Somalia remind us daily — that pageantry and sincerity are not acceptable substitutes for responsible policy-making and genuine, structural improvements in people’s living conditions.
It is unlikely to happen, but I suggest that some of the Arab leaders meeting along the Dead Sea shore in a sparkling conference center should sneak out once or twice and visit neighboring villages in the Jordan Valley and Wadi Araba, like Karamah or Ghor el-Safi. Perhaps on their way back to the airport they could visit settlements like Sahab, Jiza, Umm al-Basateen, or any of the many other smaller villages and towns on both sides of the main highway. A swing through southern and eastern Greater Amman would offer many insights into the realities of the lives of perhaps a majority of Arab citizens, especially in places like Zarqa and Ruseifeh.
The following few numbers reflect realities in our Arab region, and should spark some lively discussions among the gathered heads of state and their officials in charge of national development policies.
78% is the percentage of Arab families living in ‘hardship’ or ‘in need’ in 2016, according to the Arab Opinion Index survey by the Doha Center for Research and Policy Studies).
20% is the unemployment rate in the Arab world, which is the highest in the entire world — and it has not budged much in decades.
30% is the percentage of youth unemployment, also the highest in the world.
22% is the female labor force participation rate in the Arab world, which is the lowest in the world.
95% is the percentage of start-ups in the Arab world that, five years later, had remained small start-ups or had closed, mainly due to the stranglehold on the economy by larger, older companies that enjoyed monopoly power and were connected with political elites.
32% is the average rate of absenteeism of doctors in public sector clinics in Egypt (32), Morocco (27) and Yemen (37), because they were making more money running their private clinics during their working hours. Similar absenteeism patterns hold for many public school teachers, who make more money tutoring students after class instead of teaching them in class.
0.9% was the real GDP growth rate of the entire Arab region in 2014, and 1.6% and 6.4% were the rate of contraction of Maghreb economies in 2015 and 2014, signaling that most Arab family-level indicators (job opportunities, income, social services, etc.) would continue to decline because economic growth was well below population growth.
56% is the average percent of primary students in school who are not meeting basic learning levels (from 33 percent of children in Bahrain to 91 percent of children in Yemen).
48% is the average percent of lower secondary school students who are not meeting basic learning levels (from 26% in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, to nearly two-thirds of students in Morocco).
40% is a rough estimate of the labor force in Arab countries engaged in the informal sector, without meaningful legal protections, social safety nets, or future prospects.
These are the realities that define perhaps half the total Arab population’s stressful lives, maybe as many as 200 million people, while the other half gets along comfortably. If I were a summiteering leader, and I learned of these realities, I would expect this to be the first item of action on the agenda, because it is how just leaders govern, and also because it may be the most serious security threat they will ever face.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 28 March 2017
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