The Magazine

The Arabs Meet the Enemy . . .


Aug 5, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 45 • By SIMON HENDERSON
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SOMETIMES the driest document can unintentionally highlight telling truths. That is the case of the "Arab Human Development Report 2002," published in July by the United Nations Development Program.

Written by a group of Arab scholars and economists, the 168-page report has been praised as an honest look in the mirror. It is an agonized academic appraisal of why, even with increased life expectancy and adult literacy, the predicament of the average Arab remains dismal. It concludes that Arab societies need more freedom, more opportunities for women, and better educational opportunities--but avoids saying that these "deficits" amount to shortages of Western values.

The report was two years in the making, so September 11 and the subsequent opening up of a U.S.-Arab divide could not have happened at a worse time, from the editors' vantage point. Just before the attacks on New York and Washington, the authors distributed a questionnaire to those attending an Arab youth conference in Amman, Jordan. The participants, from 14 of the 22 states of the Arab League, were aged 13 to 17. They were asked what their greatest concerns were, whether they would like to emigrate, and if so, where?

The dominant concerns were job opportunities and education. An astonishing 45 percent indicated a wish to emigrate, with the greatest number, the report says, choosing "North America." Since the questionnaire stated "specify country," the reader is left thinking plausibly that most specified the United States, but the Arab authors preferred not to mention the choice.

A slightly older sample of youths--15- to 20-year-olds--answered the questionnaire separately. Among them, an even greater proportion wanted to emigrate, "clearly indicating their dissatisfaction with current conditions and future prospects in their home countries." This time 46 percent chose European destinations, with 21 percent writing down "Britain," followed by 36 percent choosing "the United States and Canada," with no breakdown offered.

Again, suspicions arise that the authors wrote around what might have been a politically embarrassing conclusion. (Imagine the headline: "Arab Youths Want to Live the American Dream.") They covered themselves with the proviso, "Clearly, the responses obtained and analyzed here do not constitute a probability sample of Arab youth large enough to permit valid generalizations about the entire universe of young Arabs."

Anyone who has done much work on the Arab world will want to check the report for its statistical information. Reliable data are notoriously hard to acquire, so where better to look than a U.N.-sponsored report written by a team drawn from the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, a pan-Arab body? Don't rush. There are gaps all over the place, particularly in the final table where the authors rank countries by their Alternative Human Development Index (AHDI), which looks at education, Internet access, life expectancy, freedom, "gender empowerment," and pollution. In fact, only 14 Arab states, out of 22 including Palestine, are listed among the 111 countries in the table. For the other Arab states data were not available, or perhaps were too embarrassing to print. Peripheral states like Djibouti, the Comoros Islands, and Mauritania are there, but not Saudi Arabia.

It's this table that shows the Arab states' poor standing. Of the 111 countries, the highest-ranked Arab state is Jordan at number 68. The top positions are taken by Western European democracies, while the United States ranks eleventh. (The UNDP normally uses its own Human Development Index, or HDI, which includes the crucial variable "per capita income." By that calculation the United States comes fourth.) The U.S. AHDI is apparently dragged down by poor scores for gender empowerment (women's access to power in society) and pollution.

Whose fault is the Arab states' low ranking? At least one of the authors tries to pin it all on Israel (which does not appear in the report's final ranking but has an HDI position of twenty-second in the world). That author writes, "Israel's illegal occupation of Arab lands is one of the most pervasive obstacles to security and progress in the region geographically (since it affects the entire region), temporally (extending over decades) and developmentally (impacting nearly all aspects of human development and human security), directly for millions and indirectly for others."

But the report actually concludes that "the predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings in the Arab institutional structure." It goes on: "The keys to institutional reform lie in improving political representation, civil service capacity and the rule of law." Sounds like another vote for the American way.

Simon Henderson is an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.