There is a lot more to make one confident about the Arab world than there is to cause despair. This may be a surprise, as every day we have to cope with more grim news; from Syria and Libya where civil wars have caused the states to fail and security to collapse; from Iraq where the fight against Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) still controls large parts of the country after almost two years; and from Yemen where the coalition-led war may have led to peace talks but the struggle against Al Qaida continues.
But it is vital to also recognise that as well as these well-covered tragedies, there are also continuing examples of good governance and societies seeking a way forward to a successful future for all their citizens. The outstanding example of the Lebanese coping with more than a million refugees and making room for their children in their schools gives us all hope that the basic humanity that we all share has not been forgotten in the midst of desperate strain on all services.
These examples of vision and successful Arab governance comprise government plans and private determination. They include Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s massive Saudi Vision 2030, announced this week, which intends to move the economy away from oil and embark on a series of badly-needed social reforms. Even if the immediate targets may be over-ambitious, the direction is absolutely right. It is hard to imagine the Saudi government ending its reliance on oil within four years, but the fact that it is heading in that direction is encouraging because it offers its people a far more stable economy in which to seek their ambitions and build their futures, as does the Vision 2030’s support for individual initiative and the private sector. All this shows a new willingness on the part of the Saudi government to take some radical steps to secure a stable future for its people.
A very different initiative but also illustrating the search for better governance in the Arab states was the recent UAE cabinet reshuffle that introduced new ministers for tolerance, future and youth. These surprising portfolios mean that the government is thinking about the future of its society at the highest levels, and so intends to include these constituencies in its daily operation of government services as well as in its long-term thinking.
Re-applying good governance
As the surviving Arab nation-states led the fight back against anarchy, the military action tends to lead the new agenda. For example, it was good news this week when the Saudi-led coalition supporting the Yemeni government retook the Hadramout port of Al Mukalla from Al Qaida, who had used the chaos of the war against Al Houthis to grab control. Other examples of military action are to be found in Iraq as the government slowly advances on Daesh, and in the much deeper chaos of Syria.
Underlying all these actions is the need to win the military fight against the radicals and terrorists, in order to achieve the necessary security so that good governance can be re-applied and people can re-discover their hope in life. It is important that the regional powers recognise that military action alone cannot do this, which is why the ongoing talks in Kuwait to find a political solution to the Yemeni war are so important.
The combination of government action and growing social empowerment for individuals is what offers the Arab world its long-term hope. It is a truism that ‘Man goes to work on a bus’ is not a good headline for a newspaper to run, but ‘Bus bomb kills 10’ will win a place on the news pages. The Middle East has had more than its fair share of bombs on buses and consequently all those getting to work and continuing their normal lives do not win much coverage, even when doing so in some parts of the Arab world requires considerable courage.
Loyalty and commitment
Yet, it cannot be easy to be a taxi driver in Ramadi, Iraq, knowing that random acts of street violence might hit at any moment. It must be hard working for the electricity company in Aleppo or Homs, Syria, knowing that fighting will engulf your street any moment and wreck your repair work on the power cables yet again. And it is deeply frightening to run a vegetable stall in Hebron or Nablus, knowing that you or your friends could end up in jail after the next Israeli police sweep of whatever Palestinians they can find.
Yet, it is these people and the millions of Arabs like them who are the bedrock of their societies. It is their loyalty and commitment to their societies that will allow the Arab world to recover from the civil strife and brutal violence that it is currently enduring. The passing appeal of the fanatics and radicals, who seem to offer an alternative but have conspicuously failed to build anything substantial, needs to be balanced against the solid achievements of the vast majority of Arabs as they seek to build new societies for the 21st century and beyond.