Is The Arab Destined To Watch The World Go By?

by Ghassan Karam Judged by practically every single ranking in the world Arab countries in general do not rank very high

by Ghassan Karam

Judged by practically every single ranking in the world Arab countries in general do not rank very high; neither when measured by the HDI (Human Development Index) nor when measured by the Democracy Index, the Corruption Index or that of Failed State. Why is that so? If you ask Arabs most will never tire of recounting the fact that Algebra, Medicine and Philosophy were the most developed in the world about 1200 years ago by Arab speaking scholars and Moslem believers. They have a point. The relatively common explanation of “backwardness’ in terms of language, geographical location , natural resources and religion does not stand the rigors of serious investigations. So what is it that makes nations fail? In a relatively new book that has become an instantaneous reference on the subject the two authors James Robinson of Harvard and his colleague Daron Acemoglu from MIT suggest that ultimately it is institutions, social, economic and political. They describe at length, in “Why Nations Fail”, the divergent development of North and South Korea, two countries inhabited by the same people who speak the same language and share the same peninsula. One of them has become one of the most vibrant economies in the world while the other is one of the poorest. It is clear that this offers as close to a laboratory experiment in the social field as one can imagine. One country was split into two; one adopted an open democratic system and free enterprise while the other opted for state planning and a command economy. The former prospered while the latter stagnated. What are the lessons in this to the Arab world? Create institutions that value personal freedom and liberty, encourage education and risk taking by offering protection of personal property i.e. Encourage responsible citizenship and educated population that does not fear failure since that is the dynamic force behind innovation. Creative destruction is not a phrase to be feared as much as an idea to be embraced.

Unfortunately each of the above basic attributes of this modern society that can keep reinventing itself and moving forward rests on education and an open mind above everything else. This is our failure in the Arab world. In many of our countries the literacy rate is rather low and even then it is barely above 6-8 years of education. Combine that with the dominant culture of a traditional society , a culture that does not question the reasons for the way things are but merely accepts the status quo for what it is and you get the conditions for stagnation, lack of research and entrepreneurship.

The above is not based on speculation but facts as collected , catalogued and presented by a prestigious research center, Arab thought Foundation. Its latest report reveals the damning evidence that Arabs, in general do not read, do not study and do not do research in any meaningful way. The figures are astonishingly alarming as the following will illustrate.

The average Arab child reads only 6 minutes a year compared to the 12000 by the Western counterpart. The average Arab adult reads the equivalent of a quarter of a page each year compared to the 11 books read by the American and the 7 books read by a resident of the UK. Such results should not be surprising when very few if any of our villages, towns and cities have public libraries and when the 4.5 million Lebanese buy every day less than 100,000 newspapers.  It is rare to visit an Arab home that has a bookshelf of current books besides the Quran or possibly the Bible. When we complain, as we must, that even in nominally democratic Lebanon, citizens do not vote for ideas as much as traditional feudalistic leadership, we must not forget that very few of the citizens have had the opportunity to read and learn about different ideas and different ways of thinking simply because they do not read.


As bad as the above might be in preventing the rise of responsible government it pales in significance when compared to the utter lack of interest that our society shows in research and experiments. Arab countries on the average devote 0.2% of their GDP to scientific research when countries such as Sweden and Japan spend 17 times more; 3.4%. This lack of interest in science is also seen in the number of researchers per 1 million citizens. The highest such ratio in the Arab world is found in Egypt: 650 researchers out of every 1 million people when South Korea has 4600 researchers for every 1 million Korean.

And the lack of performance goes on. It can be seen clearly in the rankings of the top 500 universities in the worlds according to the University of Shanghai, the most popular such ranking. Only 2 Arab universities make the cut; King Saud University and the King Fahd University for Petroleum and minerals. Alas all of these low rankings are reflected in something concrete, the whole of the Arab world had registered only 475 patents all across the world in the period of 2005-2009.

So what is the lesson if any? The dismal educational record in addition to the lack of any interest in research became manifested  in a rigid dictatorial political system that is ripe for revolution. You cannot keep them on the farm once they have seen Paris, as the US saying goes. The Arab Spring should not have been a surprise in a society that has abused its citizens and refused to let modern institutions develop. The Arab Spring is not over yet, even if the Assad regime falls tomorrow. We still have to deal with the rigidities of the GCC, Jordan and half of North Africa. Revolution is inevitable, and if governments are smart then they can prevent the collective pain or at least minimize it by modernizing and creating open institutions.


If any of you has the courage to read the full report (359 pages) without weeping then have a go at it: