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Arab prospects beyond the Arab Spring

Jan 25,2014 - Last updated at Jan 25,2014

In December 2013, at a makeshift cultural centre in downtown Cairo, a young Sudanese recited poems from “The Papers of Room No. Eight”, a collection written by Egyptian poet Amal Donkol weeks before his death in 1983.

He finished his recitation with the poignant “Do not dream of a happy world”; tears sparkled in the eyes of the elderly woman next to me.

It was a fitting reflection on current conditions in the Arab world nearly three years after the start of what came to be known as the “Arab Spring”.

Two-thirds of the 330 million Arabs alive today are under 35 years old. But almost none of the Arab educational system, in general, produces graduates who are competitive in the global job market.

This means that the jobs that have any wealth-creation potential are beyond their reach.

The exclusion of a significant percentage of Arab women from the labour force exacerbates the problem.

For example, though the Gulf states have a very young native population, their economies are fuelled mainly by the expatriates who constitute more than 30 per cent of the region’s inhabitants (estimates vary widely).

Meanwhile, the proportion of Arab Christians throughout the Middle East has dwindled from around 20 per cent of the total population to about 5 per cent over the last century. As a result, for the first time in at least two centuries, Arab societies are increasingly losing their cultural and intellectual diversity.

If these trends continue, the Arab world’s demographic dividend will become a catastrophic burden.

Most Arab oil producers are major credit exporters to the West, and several Gulf states’ sovereign wealth funds are among the most dynamic — and influential — actors in global capital markets.

And yet, the Arab world remains almost entirely dependent on oil exports, with even countries that have no reserves relying on fiscal support and remittances from the oil exporters.

As a result, though several Arab economies are growing at 3-5 per cent per year, they are highly vulnerable to disruptive technologies (witness the shale-energy revolution) and economic shocks (for example, recessions in the main oil importers).

And, crucially, dependence on oil means that the single source of Arab economic strength is a mature industry that is detached from those that will shape tomorrow’s global economy: bio-engineering, robotics, computer science, molecular physics and manipulation of “big data”, to name a few.

Arab soft power is a mixed bag.

The Qatari-based broadcaster Al Jazeera has managed to become a leading force in international media. Moroccan and Tunisian films regularly feature in international festivals. And Dubai is now a commercial and logistical hub, as well as a notable tourist destination.

But the Arab world’s contribution to international literary, cinematic, theatrical, and musical production is highly disproportionate to its population.

The region is also severely deficient in scientific and technological research. And the region’s value system — its attitudes towards human rights, gender equality and the role of religion in political and social life — is hardly a model for others to admire and emulate.

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