The Arab Reform Agenda: Challenges, Promises, and Prospects

The Arab world today is experiencing “its second great fragmentation and reconfiguration of the past century,” according to respected journalist and Middle East analyst Rami G. Khouri. Acknowledging that there is not really an “Arab world,” and the Arab League only exists “on paper” anymore, he used the term "the Arab region" as a geographic description in his talk, “The Arab Reform Agenda: Challenges, Promises, and Prospects,” at the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar on October 30, 2017.

Around World War I, the region was reconfigured by foreign powers—led primarily by Western powers—into its current state of nation-states, as countries like Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq and others gradually came into being. Now, a century later, the 400 million citizens of Arab countries are experiencing another radical transformation, Khouri explained. What is different now is that local people are making many of the decisions about their fragmenting states and the reconfiguring of their society, he said. These are mostly Arab people, but also non-Arabs like Kurds, Iranians, Turks, and others, including the great powers.

Khouri shared a recent news item that captured for him the severity of the dilemma for Syria today— and for virtually all the Arab world. The Russians, Turks, and Iranians—three non-Arab powers who were engaged militarily in Syria—were meeting to agree on how to deploy their militaries inside the country. In the past, he said, “they used to meet in London and Paris or Washington to talk about what they were going to do about frontiers and sovereignties, but now they’re talking about how to behave militarily with their own troops inside Syria.” At the same time, the US and many others are also involved militarily in the country.

This example also explains in part how the Arab world got to its current situation, Khouri said. “The many different symptoms that we see: ISIS, refugees, sectarian violence, civil wars—these are all symptoms of underlying stresses, disparities, and distortions.” From about 1920-1980, he said, the lives for most Arab citizens were improving, and societies in the region were on a trajectory of relatively sustained, expanding, and equitable national development. “It wasn’t perfect, but for fifty or sixty years the region was mostly developing on the basis of nationalist developmental states in most countries,” he said.

The 1980s were the transitional period in the modern Arab world, he said. Populations grew faster than economic development; military families seized power in most of the Arab republics; and the monarchies in the region had established their own forms of governance, which were widely seen as legitimate, he said. But in the republics—Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia—the militaries essentially took over, and family rule took hold for decades on end, with some of these families still in power forty years or more later.

So the Arab region has endured decades of “autocratic, security-led, family-anchored, non-participatory, non-accountable political power, combined with the continuing negative impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its repercussions, and non-stop foreign military intervention,” which Khouri said has essentially never stopped since Napoleon arrived, with only some breaks in between foreign military action in the region. The modern period since the 1950s has witnessed almost non-stop foreign military interventions. Historically this meant the British, French, and Americans, he said, “but now we’re talking about the Russians, the Iranians, and the Turks also—actively involved militarily inside Arab countries, with their friends, allies and proxies.” And the circle of foreign military intervention continues to expand, he said, mentioning new Chinese military bases in the region, while Arab states also directly deploy their military forces in other Arab states, such as the Saudi and Emirati war in Yemen or Arab involvement in Libya.

It is no surprise that the Arab region has reached the current stage of “tumultuous conditions, chaos, warfare, some state collapse, savagery, and mass refugees in the tens of millions,” said Khouri. This did not happen suddenly, he noted, as there were many early warning signs indicating there was something seriously wrong in the region, starting in the 1970s. Surveys in recent decades revealed low trust in government institutions; people did not expect their futures would improve; poverty increased; educational results dropped across the region; corruption was perceived as being very high and permanent; there were high rates of unemployment and labor informality, especially among youth; and tens of thousands of the smartest and most dynamic young people emigrated permanently. A major early sign of stressed populations at the family level was the massive support for the Muslim Brothers in the late 1970s, he said.

Conditions worsened steadily in the 1990s and 2000s, “leading to the Arab Uprisings in 2010-2011, which was an extraordinary sign that something was seriously wrong in our societies,” he said. These and other factors led to the creation of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other radical groups of that nature. “We have no reason to be surprised by what’s going on, but we do have reason to be shocked,” he said.

Khouri offered some very rough, personal calculations for what he called the “five distinct groups of Arabs” in the region today:

  • Around 10% are materially well off and have a very good life;
  • Around 30% are basically middle-class, largely employed by the government, and live a decent life;
  • Perhaps 50% (around 200 million) are low-income, poor, marginalized, and vulnerable;
  • The remaining 10% comprise two groups lumped together: emigrants and refugees—people who left or were forced to leave; and the radicals and militants who took up arms and created their own militias, like the Islamic State. This last segment of the population has essentially—whether voluntarily or involuntarily—left the Arab-state system.

When taking about the Arab world economically, Khouri said there are essentially two Arab worlds. There are the oil/energy producing countries—the smaller, wealthy emirates that do not suffer the same degree of fragmentation of the other states, with the possible exception of Bahrain. The other world—across the whole region—is a population that is “showing clear signs of pauperization, marginalization, disparities, and polarization between the wealthy and the poor.” This is creating intense pressures when you throw onto it foreign military intervention, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the continued Israeli colonization of Arab lands.

With the exception of the small wealthy states, in the rest of the region, “I think we can safely say the Arab States by and large have failed the twin tests of statehood and sovereignty that were initially implanted in their lands around a hundred years ago,” Khouri said. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, which gave British support to a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, he argues, led to “the indirect but significant impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict continuing to this day across the Arab world, and particularly on the psyche of ordinary Arabs. It has played a major role in the coming to power and staying in power of military security regimes in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other places, and it has had a major negative impact on the self-perception of ordinary Arab men and women.”

People across the region equate the Palestinian tragedy with the wider pressures that they feel in their own societies because of foreign military intervention, Khouri said. The colonial process that took root in Palestine with the Balfour Declaration still continues today, he said, “and you see this with the Russians, the Turks, and the Iranians trying to figure out how their troops are going to coexist inside Syria, let alone people outside Syria meeting to come up with new constitution for Syria.”

Rami George Khouri is an internationally syndicated political columnist and book author, professor of journalism, and journalist-in-residence at the American University of Beirut (AUB). He was the first director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at AUB, and is now senior fellow. He also serves as a nonresident senior fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard University and is a recipient of the Pax Christi International Peace Prize.

Article by Jackie Starbird, Publications and Projects Assistant at CIRS.