Arab integration: A 21st century development imperative- Part III

Daily News Egypt
14 Min Read
Protesters in Tunis demanding the release of detainees in January 2011 (AFP File Photo)

Obstacles to Arab integration

Arab countries have spent much ink on agreements intended to remove barriers to intraregional trade. Their goals – to promote Arab regional integration, achieve economic growth and address the challenges of poverty and unemployment – have not been met, and the hopes of the Arab people remain unfulfilled. Global powers have often contributed to the failure of Arab unity, from British opposition, to the 19th century renaissance project started by Muhammad Ali through the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement that chopped up the region into zones of British and French influence, up to present-day attempts to redraw the regional map around the Middle East and North Africa region.

Arab leaders pose for a group photograph during the opening session of the Arab League Summit
Arab leaders pose for a group photograph during the opening session of the Arab League Summit 2014

Alternative regional cooperation structures such as the latter are not neutral. Western countries conclude bilateral agreements with individual Arab states, and then build a regional partnership between signatory states. In this way, they impose Israel on the regional order before it has complied with international resolutions calling for an end to its occupation of Arab lands and for the return of Palestinian refugees.

Ultimately, the responsibility for Arab integration lies squarely on Arab shoulders. The regional institutions erected to manage regional cooperation have not been able to overcome disputes and disagreements among countries, or the effects of wide variations in standards of living among them or the impact on regional cooperation of their different objectives for it. For a long time, unrepresentative Arab regimes that took their legitimacy from international powers and not from the people showed little interest in practical cooperation with one another. The backlog of deprivation and division left over from their misrule created obstacles to integration within countries, with fierce group competition for resources and power splintering nations into sub-national ethnic and sectarian identities. Class differences and the urban-rural divide also widened, undermining efforts at unity.

At the regional level, weak political will and loose implementation plans ensured that most cooperation treaties were short-lived. As a result, obstacles to trade, such as non-tariff barriers, still hinder economic integration, while the larger project of integration could face complex socioeconomic challenges.

Some analysts believe that an emerging cultural conflict threatens to develop along existing fault lines in Arab societies, posing thorny challenges for integration; this is the conflict between the advocates of absolute modernisation and the forces of despotic fundamentalism, a divide marked by extremism on both sides.

This conflict has polarised public debate and arises from a clash between two incompatible cultures that both fall outside the Arab mainstream. The first is a modern culture overshadowed by western historical particularities, which thus lacks universal dynamism because it remains tied to a colonial tradition of acculturation that long shaped elite mindsets. The second is an ancient culture dominated by eastern particularities, which thus also lacks universality because it remains mired in medieval attitudes that came to distort the tolerant values on which Islam is based. Arabs today are being dragged into a quarrel between two types of fundamentalism, secular and religious, each side of which offers only futile causes: a type of modernisation that denies core Muslim values and a form of traditionalism that denies human rights.

Integration, as defined in this report, presents a way beyond this sterile conflict, which has been fueled by inequality, poverty and the poor economic performance of nation-states –the same factors underlying the Arab civil revolts that called for dignity and freedom. Equality among all citizens without discrimination will transform differences into diversity that enriches the Arab world, ending the appeal of divisive ideologies. The process of revitalising mainstream Arab civilisation through broad-based human development and social justice will expose these feuds for what they are: narrow-minded distractions from the task of building a common Arab future. The foundation of this common future is the common heritage and history of the Arab people, and their commitment to values consistent with human rights.


Consequences of the status quo

This report examines two historical choices for development in the Arab world: the first is to maintain the status quo; the second is to reach for a brighter collective future. The current path entails division, oppression, regression, and violation. The alternative leads to comprehensive integration and human renaissance.

Division and inward-looking national policies impeded effective Arab convergence and integration, denied Arab countries economies of scale, and kept them from defending Arab interests in the world from a position of collective strength. On a regional map drawn up in imperial war rooms, through the divisive structures of colonialism, to the artificial borders consolidated by autocratic nation-states, division undercut any effort to secure the well-being of the Arab peoples. Disputes and rivalries between countries have at times erupted into bloody conflicts. All of this has left Arab countries unable to provide the most basic prerequisites for human development and human security, including knowledge, the twenty-first century standard of advancement and the fastest route to prosperity in a globalised world.

Arab countries, both the rich and the poor, will remain small and weak in the global arena if they continue to work individually. This becomes obvious when they are compared with the rising powers, giant conglomerates, and powerful regional blocs of the contemporary world.

Oppression under autocratic regimes curbed freedoms and rights. The equation of wealth with power opened societies to all forms of corruption. State oppression and restrictions on opposition groups and minorities in the name of national security eclipsed the principle of equal citizenship for all citizens, turning people from national to group loyalties. In the absence of democratic governance and civic frameworks for reconcilling differences, these loyalties have led to tribal conflicts, sectarian strife and infighting.

Regression in a dependent and under-productive political economy dominated by rent-seeking activities and weak production structures has sent the region into a spiral of low productivity, uncompetitive production, unemployment and poverty. This pattern makes Arab countries depend on the outside world for everything from food and aid to goods and knowledge, leaving them weak and vulnerable without their own means to provide decent lives and livelihoods for their citizens.

Violations in a region beset by foreign occupation, political interference and military intervention have eroded its security and set back its development. Infiltrated by outside influences, dotted with foreign military bases and outflanked in international organisations by larger powers, the Arab world has seldom had room to manoeuvre. Its weakness on the international stage invites such violation and is a direct result of division and regression.

Maintaining the status quo also means incurring the grave risks of water scarcity, aridity, climate change and environmental degradation without common adaptive strategies or transboundary cooperation to protect the regional commons.


The three freedom goals

In contrast to this first, destructive trajectory, the alternative, namely to move towards comprehensive Arab integration, has tremendous potential. It is, in fact, the only way to achieve the three “freedom goals” that would portend a human renaissance in the region.

Protesters in Tunis demanding the release of detainees in January 2011 (AFP File Photo)
Protesters in Tunis demanding the release of detainees in January 2011
(AFP File Photo)

The first freedom goal is to protect the rights and dignity and ensure the security of all Arab citizens irrespective of their nationality, religion, ethnicity, or sex. Security starts with the liberation of the Arab world from occupation and foreign influence. Dignity comes from the establishment of good governance to ensure justice and democracy under a new social contract that guarantees equal citizenship and human rights for all.

The second freedom goal is to liberate Arab production from its current weak, inefficient and uncompetitive pattern. This requires diversifying industrial structures into more flexible, more knowledge-based and more value-adding enterprises, capable of meeting the material needs of the Arab people by generating employment, income and better living standards. Strong and continually developing industries require effective integration across the chain of production if they are to compete effectively in international trade. This development strategy should be complemented by intercountry initiatives to reduce environmental and ecological stresses in the region.

The third freedom goal is to unshackle Arab culture from self-inflicted limits and conflicts and to restore its vigour and that of its language. To that end, the best characteristics of Arab-Islamic civilisation must be revived and enriched with the best achievements of human civilisation. This also entails enhancing and preserving the Arabic language, promoting diversity and boosting knowledge acquisition and production in order to make knowledge the driver of creativity in all aspects of society. Cultural advancement should be complemented with intellectual reform based on a critical approach. The aim is to break the doctrinal and institutional chains that have confined religious thought to the past and to liberate true Islam from rigid interpretations by restoring independent reason.

A free and flourishing Arab renaissance in the sense implied by these goals is not to be confused with a romantic return to a golden age. Nor is it in any way associated with Arabism based on race or ethnic origin. Renaissance is an act of historical creativity aimed at reshaping the human components of the Arab-Islamic civilisation inspired by its own principles, and enriching it with the best achievements of other societies. Renaissance loosens the dead grip of regression and repression on the spiritual and material lives of Arabs, and it can only be achieved in the presence of five key elements: the independent will of free people; creative cognisance that achieves the conditions necessary for an independent regional entity; real rather than delusional capacity; continuous renewal achieved through permanent dialogue between all segments of the people; and autonomy that will be achieved when a comprehensive union, whose members converge around its mission, is established in history. This implies the convergence of all Arab countries into a free Arab citizenship area where all Arab citizens enjoy equal citizenship rights.

Arab integration, as set out in this report, would mean the progressive and voluntary unification of the people in the region into an independent entity capable of achieving human development and competing effectively with other regional groups. The road to that destination would be marked out by successive forms of regional integration, which would pave the way. It would undoubtedly be built on the ruins of the current path, which has left the Arab people disillusioned, alienated, and angry. Completing that historic shift will enable Arabs to say, with assurance and pride, that they have regained their rightful place in the world, and know how to hold it; that no task of development is too great for a community of empowered regional citizens; and that future generations will be all the stronger for inheriting Arab unity.


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 is publishing the report in three parts. Read Part I here, Part II here

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