Beirut blast
With poverty rife in many Arab countries, especially among the most vulnerable segments, it is hard to imagine a future where this region can flourish and prosper Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

Development of nations are usually assessed by the level of their children’s well-being, judged by how well the little ones are nurtured, educated, and of course motivated to peruse a better future than that of their parents.

They are the nations’ future, aren’t they? So, and based on this basic premise, the future of the Arab world doesn’t look so promising — according to the published statistics.

A report released by the United Nations’ children welfare agency, Unicef, few years ago, which was shocking to say the least, on the state of child poverty in most of the Arab world (those outside the Gulf region) unfortunately received little attention.

It was the result of a multi-year research in 11 Arab countries: Algeria, Comoros, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen.

According to the report, the under-18 population in those countries — more than 118 million — “represents about 6 per cent of the world’s total child population.”

Tailored policies

Of these, 52.5 million suffer from ‘moderate poverty’, representing 44.1 per cent, or close to half of all children in those countries. Meanwhile, 29.3 million, or 1 out of 4, live in ‘acute poverty’. Unicef said in its conclusion that “such levels of child poverty must be prioritised through tailored policies” nationally and regionally.

This damning picture, of the most vulnerable segment of society, sadly reflects the entire situation in most of the Arab world. When the entire GDP of the 22 Arab states, with a population of more than 438 million, is no more than $2.370 trillion, in 2020, equal or even less than the GDP of France — with a population of 67 million.

Of the more than $2 trillion, the industrial sector represents a meagre 12 per cent of the entire Arab GDP. What that means is we don’t eat, wear, or drive what we make. The Arab world imports almost everything. That also means, most importantly, that our economies are still in a primitive state.

Or worse, an economy of consumerism. Thus, when a supply chain crisis happens, like the current one affecting the entire world, families in some parts of the Arab world will starve.

Or when the national currency of certain Arab state is devalued against the US dollar, such as the case in Lebanon nowadays, the prices of commodities will skyrocket, and basic food items become out of reach of even middle-class families.

At the start of the current economic collapse in Lebanon in 2019, the UN projected “an increase of poverty from 28 per cent in 2019 to 35 per cent in 2020”. However, other reports indicate a more realistic estimate of an increase in the poverty rate to 55.3 per cent of the Lebanon population.

COVID's impact on the Arab world

In Syria, in a civil war since 2011, the UN Humanitarian Needs Overview says that “more than 83 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, compared to 28 per cent in 2010.” The coronavirus pandemic has of course had a deeper impact of the economies of the Arab world, henceforth the real numbers would show even a sorrier state of affairs as millions of people in the region lost jobs, and the basic services available to them such as health care collapsed.

With poverty rife in many Arab countries, especially among the most vulnerable segments, it is hard to imagine a future where this region can flourish and prosper. Especially when another threat looms large over that prospect — acute shortage of water.

The Arab world, in which 6 per cent of the world population lives, has access to only 1 per cent of the world’s total water resources. The UN says at least 12 Arab countries suffer from severe water shortages. “On average, water availability is only 1,200 cubic metres, around six times less than the worldwide average of 7,000 cubic metres.” Therefore, today this region is officially one of the driest regions on the planet.

These are hard facts. Not all the facts. There are many more like these in every aspect of human development or more correctly the lack thereof. They clearly say the future of the Arab world is at risk- limited resources, malnourished children, poor population and limited access to decent services.

When the world is busy with questions of sustainable development, renewable energy, climate change and technological advances, many in the Arab world struggle with the imminent collapse of the state system.

Certainly, there are notable exception in this part of the world; there are countries that has managed to utilise its resources and human wealth to create a modern society that is able to not only be part of the new world economy but also contribute to the global efforts to shape a better future for humanity. The UAE is a shining example.

An even sadder truth is that those hard facts about poverty and underdevelopment in the Arab world don’t seem to bother even the least our ultimate regional organisation — the Arab League.

The Arab League is a 76-year-old organisation. It was formed in 1945 and consists of the 22 Arab states. Its main charter states that it is meant to “draw closer the relations between member states and coordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries.”

But a closer look at the current “affairs and interests” of the Arab world will easily show that the league has failed, big time. Since its inception, we lost lands to occupiers, went through subsequent wars, invasions, division, and intra-Arab animosities.

Today, this organisation is as good as dead with ineffective and costly agencies that most of the Arabs don’t even know they exist. It has zero influence on what transpires in this region — good or bad. And it had it coming because it still is based on a wrong premise.

The Arab League has always focused on the politics. At one point all of what it did was firefighting and did it badly. I cannot recall an instance when the Arab League has succeeded in preventing a conflict or managed to bring about a peaceful solution to one. Meanwhile, it ignored the basic and most important part of what was supposed to be its main objective — the welfare of the Arab people.

Therefore, a new Arab order is in order. To secure a better future for this region, a new pan-Arab body is needed. One that goes to the basics, a development-oriented institution. Perhaps a common market type of organisation that would start from a scratch to bring together the 22 states economically.

To foster a closer economic integration among the member states. To bring the rich experiences of such states as the GCC to those still struggling with higher poverty levels. It is not too late to start a new agency that would at least read the scary data available on ‘Google’. The current organisation doesn’t seem to realise this date exists.