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Ambitious new vision needed to fix Arab region’s inequalities

A memorial to Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation triggered the Arab Spring, Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Dec. 8, 2022. (Reuters)
A memorial to Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation triggered the Arab Spring, Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Dec. 8, 2022. (Reuters)
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31 Aug 2022 03:08:49 GMT9
31 Aug 2022 03:08:49 GMT9

The title of the latest report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia on inequality in the Arab region is as disturbing as its findings. The report, “Inequality in the Arab Region: A Ticking Time Bomb,” sums up what numerous other reports and studies have concluded for some time. The nagging question is: Will there be any serious and tangible action to defuse such a bomb?

The report paints a distressing picture, in which key indicators such as income inequality and gender inequality have been found to be above the global average. In some Arab countries, the top 10 percent of earners account for more than 60 percent of national income, compared with 52 percent globally, 55 percent in Latin America and 36 percent in Europe.

As for gender inequality, it is systematically above the global average, with an estimated 179 years needed to close the gender gap, compared with 142 years globally, the report states. Factors driving inequality include demographic dynamics, poor education, the digital divide, weak institutions, corruption and a lack of transparency, data deficits, and unaffordable housing.

The report also points to youth unemployment, which is 3.8 times higher than that of adult workers and has been the highest globally for the past 25 years.

Added to all these factors is the traumatic effect of the phenomenon of the so-called Arab Spring on the economies of the most vulnerable Arab countries. With Tunisia now going through political and economic despair, the single example often cited by pundits as a success story has now become obsolete. From Syria to Yemen and from Lebanon to Libya, key developmental indicators are sinking fast. For the first time, we see countries edging close to becoming failed states.

Regardless of where one stands on the root causes and forces behind the eruption of the Arab Spring, one should objectively point to the fact that the elements constituting a perfect socioeconomic storm had been massing for years long before 2011. The sad state of most countries in the Arab region today can partially be blamed on certain political forces seeking, with outside help, to hijack popular uprisings; but that is not the full story.

Factors cited by the UN commission’s report as driving inequality and potentially leading to upheaval are mostly the same ones that led to the eruptions of 2011. External global factors notwithstanding, the Arab region suffers from endemic challenges that have upset many countries since independence.

Ideological schisms, military takeovers and failed wars against Israel marked the decades since the 1950s. By the 1990s, the Soviet Union had collapsed and a new unipolar world order had taken over. Ending the Arab-Israeli conflict took more pragmatic routes, starting with the Oslo Accords and culminating today with the signing of the Abraham Accords. But in between these long years, the region became scarred by regional wars and foreign invasions, which left indelible faults in the structures of many regional states.

For various reasons, many key nation states in the Arab neighborhood suffered from institutional corruption, demographic shockwaves and the collapse of essential institutions offering basic and higher education, health and decent jobs.

Only one cluster of like-minded and politically and economically similar states has come through: The GCC. Today, this is the only part of the Arab region that sees healthy economic growth and huge infrastructural investments with an eye on creating enough jobs for its youth. The set of challenges facing these countries is different from those confronting the Levant and North Africa.

But the region as a whole faces common challenges that require consolidated action. Climate change and extreme weather conditions, food security, water scarcity and the stability of the entire region represent cross-border challenges.

External global factors notwithstanding, the Arab region suffers from endemic challenges that have upset many countries since independence.

Osama Al-Sharif

Old ideologically structured and politically crippled bodies like the Arab League have failed to rise to the occasion and address looming challenges. The region needs a fresh start with an entrepreneurial spirit; one that replaces free handouts with feasible investments with the aim of addressing the factors the UN report pointed out. If this region is to reverse the current trajectory, which drives inequality, poverty, brain drain, unemployment, poor education, corruption and a lack of transparency and accountability, it must adopt a new approach.

The region as a whole sits on incredible resources that can render it self-sufficient in food, energy and manpower, while helping it combat the effects of climate change, water scarcity, desertification and others. A new approach that is based on an ambitious vision of the concept of complementarity in the Arab region is needed. And Gulf states can take the lead in implementing such a vision.

That is easier said than done as countries in the region succumb to political upheaval and economic disarray. Doing nothing leaves us with no choice, as the sound of the ticking bomb gets louder by the day.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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