It's getting to be a ritual now - the United Nations Development Programme issues its Arab Human Development Report, bemoaning the sad state of affairs in the Arab world, and we, dutiful commentators one and all, write our columns about it.

The 208-page report, released on July 21, the fifth published since 2002, does indeed, as The Economist opined in its cover story, make for a 'depressing' read. In the Arab Middle East, it seems, the more things change, the more they, well, stay the same. The aggregate of ills that Arab society suffered from, when a group of distinguished Arab intellectuals and academics compiled their first report seven years ago, has not changed: lack of personal freedoms, failure of liberal reform, widespread poverty, high unemployment, discrimination, a woeful educational system, a muzzled press, economic regress, political repression, and the rest of it - in short, what a social scientist would call the 'alienation' of Arabs from their objective reality, or as the authors of this most recent UN report prefer to call it, 'human insecurity'.

"In the Arab region", they say, "human insecurity - pervasive, often intense, and with severe consequences on large numbers of people - has inhibited human development".

That's fine, a given. But have these noted experts enlarged the compass of our intellectual awareness of what bedevils Arabs, or introduced us to a novel focus in the public debate? The unutterable monotony of tabulating the same ills afflicting the Arab world, in one report after another, can be numbing. Yes, we know, the decades have rolled by and cultural, economic and political stagnation remains a chronic condition for the overwhelming majority of Arabs.

When, for example, two out of five Arab citizens live on $2 (Dh7.3) or less a day, that's not your garden variety poverty, that's abject poverty associated with failed states. When, for yet another example, a journalist, a social critic or a political activist is hauled off to jail for being part of the adversarial current in his community, we have to wonder about the nature of Arab authoritarianism. And who would disagree with the authors that the Arab world, for the most part, is ruled by authoritarian regimes that rely on coercion and violence to rule, and that demand from their citizens submission, obedience and conformity?

But the question here, not addressed in the report, is this: why has authoritarianism in the Arab Middle East persisted despite the presence of virtually every factor that has been used to explain its collapse elsewhere, from failures in development to defeat in war?

"Democracy is more than just elections," The Economist wrote in its lead story. "It is about education, tolerance and building independent institutions such as a judiciary and a free press". I go beyond that. I say, yes, democracy is a political system, but it is also a social ethos. How responsive would a country be to such an ethos when its people have for generations been socialised on an ethic of fear, and not just fear of the authorities but, in every way, fear of life itself?

Passing largely unnoticed by these distinguished scholars, in their meditations on the persistence of backwardness in the Arab world, is how Arabs appear to have quietly acquiesced not only to the forfeiture of their powers of self-determination, but in how they have equally acquiesced to the intrusion of their governments' rules into every subsystem of their social system, rules that have ensured that the conduct of the citizen, in every facet of his life, is a reflection of state rule. These relations of force have traditionally supported the power of this entrenched elite by ensuring, for example, that the family system is a model of this state rule. Thus, the father is the state's representative at home, raising, disciplining and punishing children as authority does its citizens. The male is equally the state's representative in his interaction with the female, as is the teacher with the student, the adult with the child, the religious figure with the believer, the employer with the employee, the zaim, or local thug, with the neighbourhood poor, and so on.

The end result of living in such an environment, generation after generation, is a corrosion in the constitution of personality and the existential identity of the Arab and his world.

Most countries in the Arab Middle East remain broken in back and spirit, sapped of elan, stagnant, as this most recent UN report would attest. But all is not lost. The Arab world is experiencing a population explosion, having more than doubled, from 150 million in 1980 to 350 million in our time. Surely this human mass will one day, predictably and inevitably, become a critical mass of disenfranchised souls demanding to be the determining force in their destiny. If history has implacable laws, surely this is one of them.

It has happened in places as far apart as France and Russia, China and Iran.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.