“Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation,” Gibran Khalil Gibran
Arab integration is not a new idea. It has been adopted as an official goal, attempted and abandoned at different times since the 1950s. Some types of integration succeeded while many others did not, the casualties of wavering political will and unclear plans.
Failure has deterred further attempts. Some believe that, just as external and internal obstacles thwarted integration in the past they would do so again. Advocates of integration, however, argue that the region is enviably placed for close cooperation, with a common language and culture, a shared history and geographical proximity. No other regional grouping in the world started from such promising beginnings.
This report starts with the latter argument and goes on to make a case for integration as a prerequisite for human development and renaissance in the region. The extraordinary wave of civil revolts across the region has made comprehensive integration both more urgent and more feasible. These liberating rebellions shook republics and monarchies from the Atlantic to the Gulf. They unified the Arab political space with their common call for justice, equality, economic opportunities and freedom. But their hopes and expectations are on a scale that no single Arab country by itself can satisfy. Only through integration can the Arab countries initiate a renaissance equal to such sweeping demands. This historic change, and the popular movements behind it, provide an unprecedented impetus for integration, and a powerful assurance that, this time, the Arabs will see that the process is sustained and completed.
Around the world, even the greatest powers have seen fit to become part of larger entities in order to manage globalisation and the fierce competition it brings. Meanwhile, Arab countries — fragmented and divided — try to face individually external pressures, domestic challenges and emerging risks in a world more interconnected and complex than ever before.
Comprehensive integration as advocated in this report is an altogether larger idea than conventional integration, and one greater than the sum of its parts. It is not just about linking political systems; it is about reinventing those systems in a free area of Arab citizenship to address real challenges to stability and peace by guaranteeing every Arab justice, equality, human rights and autonomy in all the Arab countries.
While comprehensive integration builds on expanded intraregional flows of goods, services and capital, it does not stop with the enhancement of the Greater Arab Free Trade Area. Rather, it is about directing the significant material benefits of enhanced trade towards sustainable human development so that millions more Arabs may lead fulfilling, decent lives in a more environmentally secure future that is free from poverty, unemployment and violation. This integration draws on Arab cultural identity and strengthens it by embracing diversity, pluralism, enlightened religion and the exchange of continuously developing knowledge.
The Arab region has missed out on the benefits that even a minimum level of integration could bestow on human development and national security. Fragmentation has caused the region’s development efforts to falter in the past, and may do so again in the future. Integration offers a serious process of cooperation that would free the Arab people from fear and want, and restore the region to its rightful place in the world.
An integrated region is not closed to the world. In fact, Arab integration seeks to consolidate relations with other regional groups and bring together the best achievements of its own history with those of other civilisations through mutual learning and enrichment.
Comprehensive integration therefore goes well beyond economic integration to include all components of human civilisation as defined by the Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun: the economy and governance provide its material basis while culture and education make up its moral dimension. This broader scope defines the concept adopted in this report. While economic integration remains its mainstay, the concept looks beyond the narrow scope of trade liberalisation to new foundations for production and diversification, new knowledge-based economies and new patterns of cooperation for developing integrated human, technological and productive capacities in the Arab region.
Shortcomings in joint Arab action
For over half a century, the Arab region has witnessed repeated attempts at joint action. Initially ambitious, these attempts soon descended into narrow economic experiments that fell far short of their original inspiration, the dream of Arab unity. Moreover, even economic cooperation became limited to trade facilitation between under-productive economies, and was chiefly directed at capital mobility, which often aims for quick and easy gains. The path to a common Arab labour market was strewn with obstacles which prevented the implementation of existing agreements. These treaties became mere declarations of principles with little or no effect. Arab industrial integration shrank to a few joint ventures, which barely tapped the potential of comprehensive integration.
In the absence of political will, Arab regional bodies have made little headway with economic and cultural integration. Consequently, important opportunities have slipped through their hands, such as the establishment of a regional system to support knowledge acquisition and production. The neglect of educational quality and scientific research and technological development goes against the first premise of renaissance, namely, the re-birth of intellectual, cultural and scientific creativity.
Post-independence Arab countries adopted policies that divided the common Arab space and suppressed Arab history, actively extending the destructive legacy of their former colonial masters. In many countries, efforts to legitimise new nation-states undermined the common Arabic culture, language and memory in a bid to erase a proud history. As a result, the opportunities to lay the foundations of a common education for Arab youth were lost.
But the common heritage, language and history of the Arab people are irrepressible forces. They survived their repudiation by modernizing nation-states just as they resisted elimination by colonial powers. They live on in the minds, hearts and memory of the Arab peoples who do not submit to artificial borders and barriers, and they have rebounded from official denial and suppression.
Peoples precede Governments
Not surprisingly, then, Arab popular integration has surpassed official Arab cooperation. Popular solidarity across the region has created new channels of communication and interaction, opening up the spontaneous potential of human integration outside official frameworks, and sometimes in spite of them.
Arab popular cooperation thrives on the diversity of the Arab region, a vibrant feature of its civilisation. Identity is only enriched through diversity which has been celebrated for centuries in a region that was, for a long time, the crossroads of the world.
Literature and the arts have done more to unite Arabs than any official plan of integration. Poems, novels and short stories speak across borders to the shared experiences, hopes and tragedies of the Arab people, weaving a seamless cultural fabric from communities of feeling. Music, the language of emotion, continues to bring Arabs together wherever they may be, as the universal appeal of singers such as Um Kulthoom and Fairouz demonstrates. Artistic creations in one country are understood and appreciated by the people of another, thanks to cultural television programmes, publications and the reach of the Internet. Popular cultural integration in the region is a fact, made possible by a shared language and history. Its triumph is to have shaped a living Arab identity, an achievement no Arab country can claim.
Arab satellite television has greatly helped to diffuse this shared culture. By creating a common Arab space far richer than the closed ecology of Arab official media, it has broken a stifling monopoly over communications. Satellite television has familiarized regional audiences with one another’s customs and traditions, popularized vernacular dialects and created a simplified Arabic language that reaches greater numbers of people, drawing them closer together. It enables Arabs from Oman to Morocco to watch the same event together and to join in regional dialogues and debates. More recently satellite television closely followed, and partly enabled, the rise of Arab civil protests, which earned it the hostility of regimes. Although not entirely free of sponsor interests, it remains a force for Arab convergence as independent as the popular culture it helps to spread.
Undeterred by official opposition, popular integration appears in many forms. Despite host country restrictions, the Arab workforce in the Gulf countries, with its diverse customs and experiences, is by its nature, a sign of social and cultural convergence in the Arabian Peninsula. Across countries, civil society groups engaged in defending human rights, and especially women’s rights; they joined hands to press their cause notwithstanding stiff obstacles to the right to organise.
By far the most astonishing display of popular solidarity in modern Arab history has been the wave of civil uprisings during the so-called Arab Spring. It may be too soon to predict the final outcome of this historic development, but its main implications for the region are clear: Arab popular grievances and aspirations can no longer be ignored. The crowds that toppled autocrats spoke from a common experience of humiliation and deprivation. The extraordinary synergy that they developed among themselves was their powerful answer to decades of Arab disunity. Their demands for justice, equality and dignity, which echoed across the region, unified the Arab political space and represent a broad-based aspiration for a different regional order.
This report is the result of combined efforts in research, analysis and review led by Rima Khalaf, Executive Secretary of ESCWA. An advisory board of Arab thinkers contributed to setting its methodological framework and enriched its material with their valuable inputs. Arab experts participated in drafting the report, and ESCWA staff assisted in providing substantive research, statistics and economic models, as well as in the coordination and support.
Daily News Egypt will be publishing the report in three parts.