By Robert Fisk



According to a UN report, the global improvement in living standards
has passed much of the Arab world by. Robert Fisk explains why

Why is the Arab world - let us speak with terrible sharpness - so
backward? Why so many dictators, so few human rights, so much state
security and torture, so terrible a literacy rate?

Why does this wretched place, so rich in oil, have to produce,
even in the age of the computer, a population so poorly educated,
so undernourished, so corrupt? Yes, I know the history of Western
colonialism, the dark conspiracies of the West, the Arab argument
that you cannot upset the sheikhs and the kings and the autocrats,
the imams and the emirs when the "enemy is at the gates". There is
some truth to that. But not enough truth.

Once more the United Nations Development Programme has popped up
with yet one more, its fifth, report that catalogues - via Arab
analysts and academics, mark you - the retarded state of much of the
Middle East. It talks of "the fragility of the region's political,
social, economic and environmental structures... its vulnerability
to outside intervention". But does this account for desertification,
for illiteracy - especially among women - and the Arab state which,
as the report admits, is often turned "into a threat to human security,
instead of its chief support"?

As Arab journalist Rami Khouri stated bleakly last week: "How we
tackle the underlying causes of our mediocrity and bring about real
change anchored in solid citizenship, productive economies and stable
statehood, remains the riddle that has defied three generations of
Arabs." Real GDP per capita in the region - one of the statistics
which truly shocked Khouri - grew by only 6.4 per cent between 1980
and 2004. That's just 0.5 per cent annually, a rate which 198 of 217
countries analysed by the CIA World Factbook bet - which stood at
150 million in 1980 - will reach 400 million in 2015.

I notice much of this myself. When I first came to the Middle East
in 1976, it was crowded enough. Cairo's steaming, fetid streets were
already jam-packed, night and day, with up to a million homeless living
in the great Ottoman cemeteries. Arab homes are spotlessly clean but
their streets are often repulsive, dirt and ordure spilling on to
the pavements. Even in beautiful Lebanon, where a kind of democracy
does exist and whose people are among the most educated and cultured
in the Middle East, you find a similar phenomenon. In the rough hill
villages of the south, the same cleanliness exists in every home. But
why are the streets and the hills so dirty?

I suspect that a real problem exists in the mind of Arabs; they do not
feel that they own their countries. Constantly coaxed into effusions
of enthusiasm for Arab or national "unity", I think they do not feel
that sense of belonging which Westerners feel. Unable, for the most
part, to elect real representatives - even in Lebanon, outside the
tribal or sectarian context - they feel "ruled over". The street, the
country as a physical entity, belongs to someone else. And of course,
the moment a movement comes along and - even worse - becomes popular,
emergency laws are introduced to make these movements illegal or
"terrorist". Thus it is always someone else's responsibility to look
after the gardens and the hills and the streets.

And those who work within the state system - who work directly for
the state and its corrupt autarchies - also feel that their existence
depends on the same corruption upon which the state itself thrives. The
people become part of the corruption. I shall always remember an
Arab landlord, many years ago, bemoaning an anti-corruption drive by
his government. "In the old days, I paid bribes and we got the phone
mended and the water pipes mended and the electricity restored," he
complained. "But what can I do now, Mr, Robert? I can't bribe anyone
- so no 002, was deeply depressing. It identified three cardinal
obstacles to human development in the Arab world: the widening
"deficit" in freedom, women's rights and knowledge. George W Bush -
he of enduring freedom, democracy, etc etc amid the slaughter of Iraq
- drew attention to this. Understandably miffed at being lectured to
by the man who gave "terror" a new name, even Hosni Mubarak of Egypt
(he of the constantly more than 90 per cent electoral success rate),
told Tony Blair in 2004 that modernisation had to stem from "the
traditions and culture of the region".

Will a solution to the Arab-Israeli war resolve all this? Some of
it, perhaps. Without the constant challenge of crisis, it would be
much more difficult to constantly renew emergency laws, to avoid
constitutionality, to distract populations who might otherwise demand
overwhelming political change. Yet I sometimes fear that the problems
have sunk too deep, that like a persistently leaking sewer, the ground
beneath Arab feet has become too saturated to build on.

I was delighted some months ago, while speaking at Cairo University -
yes, the same academy which Barack Obama used to play softball with
the Muslim world - to find how bright its students were, how many
female students crowded the classes and how, compared to previous
visits, well-educated they were. Yet far too many wanted to move to
the West. The Koran may be an invaluable document - but so is a Green
Card. And who can blame them when Cairo is awash with PhD engineering
graduates who have to drive taxis?

And on balance, yes, a serious peace between Palestinians and
Israelis would help redress the appalling imbalances that plague Arab
society. If you can no longer bellyache about the outrageous injustice
that this war represents, then perhaps there are other injustices
to be addressed. One of them is domestic violence, which - despite
the evident love of family which all Arabs demonstrate - is far more
prevalent in the Arab world than Westerners might realise (or Arabs
want to adm iddle East. By all means, send the Arabs our teachers,
our economists, our agronomists. But bring our soldiers home. They do
not defend us. They spread the same chaos that breeds the injustice
upon which the al-Qa'idas of this world feed. No, the Arabs - or,
outside the Arab world, the Iranians or the Afghans - will not produce
the eco-loving, gender-equal, happy-clappy democracies that we would
like to see. But freed from "our" tutelage, they might develop their
societies to the advantage of the people who live in them. Maybe the
Arabs would even come to believe that they owned their own countries.