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How can a country develop if it refuses to use the capabilities of half of its population?

This was the question asked in 2002 in a report commissioned by the United Nations on the Arab world, a report that underlined with shocking statistics the endemic underdevelopment of the Arab League's 22 members. Its authors can't be accused of harbouring prejudices, since all of them were Arab academics.

Their findings form the background of the revolts that have taken place in Tunisia and, especially, in Egypt.

The UN's "development program" concluded that the way out of Arab underdevelopment was the advent of political freedom and democracy, the promotion of "knowledge" and, last but not least, the empowerment of women.

Since 2002, other UN-commissioned reports have been published on the state of the Arab world. Basically, there's been no progress. Here are some of the most depressing facts:

All the Arab League countries are governed by hereditary monarchies or authoritarian and corrupt, if not despotic, regimes that, in many cases, can count on the phenomenal revenues of oil production to placate the opposition.

Out of the roughly 335 million inhabitants of the Arab world, 65 million are illiterate, two-thirds of them women. Ten million children don't go to school. The life expectancy of Arab women is lower than the world average. And the contribution of Arab women to public life (labour market, politics and so on) is the lowest in the world.

The intellectual life of the Arab world – which, a thousand years ago, was the proud beacon of an extremely advanced civilization – is marked by isolationism. According to the UN-commissioned report, the investment in research and development represents less than a seventh of the world average. Between 1980 and 2000, there were five times more books translated into Greek than into Arabic. During the last millennium, the Arab countries translated about the same number of books that Spain translates in a single year.

Between 1986 and 2000, only 367 scientific patents were registered in six Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Syria and Jordan), while South Korea registered 16,328 and Israel 7,652.

How should this terrible record be explained?

Some Arabs play the victimization card, arguing that the culprits are colonialism and, not surprisingly, the United States. This, of course, is highly debatable. Most Arab countries were never colonized. Some of them lived, for various periods, as French or British protectorates, a form of domination lighter than colonialism.

Some of the world's most dynamic countries have been brutally colonized, including all of Latin America. Taiwan and South Korea were colonized by Japan. Vietnam was colonized by France before being ravaged by the American intervention. As for China, it was invaded and dismembered for more than a century by Japan and the Western powers – and look where China is now.

As for U.S. influence being a purely negative force, look at South Korea, where 28,000 American soldiers are stationed. And South Korea is thriving.

The Arab academics who worked on the UN-commissioned reports consider that the Arab world's problems are homegrown: the absence of liberties, bad governance and, of course, the inferior status of women. But, then, what's the root cause of women's disempowerment? One can suppose it has to do with Islamic fundamentalism rather than with Arab culture, since women are equally, if not more, repressed in a large part of the Muslim non-Arab world.