At a time when most of the world is preparing to celebrate the advent of the second decade of the 21st century, one wonders whether the Arab world has achieved much that is worth celebrating. As 2009 draws to a close, one is absolutely saddened by the state of the Arab world as it stands today.

Six decades ago, immediately after the departure of the colonial powers, the Arab world had big and ambitious dreams: unity, development, equality, prosperity and a reasonable degree of economic independence. Sixty years on, one is tempted to ask if the Arab world has really realised any of these objectives and whether they were realistic and achievable in the first place. This question is highly controversial, as a combination of external and internal factors have played a decisive role in shaping recent Arab history.

Yet, most Arab regimes would like us to believe that their failure to do any good for their countries over the past decades is the responsibility of the external powers; i.e. imperialism, colonialism and, more recently, the globalisation of the world's economy. They may also blame their "backward and conservative" societies for not being responsive enough to their reforms, plans and programmes. But is this really the case? Can Arab leaders not be held responsible for anything that has gone wrong?


Most Arab leaders, particularly those of the popular variety, claimed upon assuming power that they would right the wrongs of the colonial powers and that of the post-independence national bourgeoisie. They promised to liberate Arab lands, heal divisions between religious and ethnic communities, bridge the gap between social classes, limit dependency on the foreign powers, fight corruption, modernise state and society and promote democracy and secularism.

To these ends, Arab rulers adopted the ‘Kamalist approach', trying to impose their vision on conservative societies ruled by their own laws and traditions. The mission was declared to transform these societies into modern nation states and fledging democracies. They enjoyed wide popular support to achieve these objectives but soon discovered that they could neither challenge the regional order, nor implement their domestic policies. Instead of admitting failure, stepping down and allowing new forces to try different policies, Arab rulers have clung to power with complete disregard for public interest.

In such an environment, the state was transformed from being a defender of order and property into a creator of wealth, power and prestige. As a consequence, the ruling elite resorted to tough measures to pacify the ruled and press for unplanned and hasty reforms.

The result was total failure in every aspect of state activities, be that in the realm of fulfilling the welfare functions of the state, or in the most basic task of defending its territories. Even in polities where conditions are favourable, policymaking and administration have been arbitrary, discontinuous, and pursued in a milieu of large-scale official corruption. The frequent failure of the Arab ruling elites to develop and implement socially beneficial policies has led to the erosion of their tenuous legitimacy and to a consequent increase in the use of force to maintain order and control.

But, the increasing level of coercion against the very people Arab regimes claimed to represent could not alone keep them in power. Hence, they have supported the social ills they alleged their mission was to suppress; i.e. sectarianism, nepotism and patrimonial relations, with the machinery of the state. One consequence of these policies was the weakening of national identity and the revival of communal tension. Hence, people in Iraq and Lebanon and many other Arab countries came to identify themselves as Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians; rather than Iraqis, Lebanese or whatever else.

No wonder that the Arab world looks today much more fragmented, poorer and hopeless than it was at the dawn of independence. Some Arab countries, such as Iraq, are struggling today not for broader unity with the rest of the Arab world, but to preserve the political borders drawn by the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement. Others are languishing in poverty, deprivation, or foreign occupation. For most of these ills, Arab regimes have only themselves to blame. They have indeed left us with very little to celebrate.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at Damascus University's Faculty of Political Sciences and Media.