Reports 29 April, 2012

The Doha Sheraton played host to an unprecedented gathering of scholars, policymakers, and intellectuals concerned with the development of a new Arabic culture in the wake of the Arab Spring. The scope of the meetings unprecedented for Arab academic conferences, with speakers covering everything from the role of the Arabic language as a signifier of Arab identity*to case studies of the economic policies of individual Arab states.

The magnitude of the logistical challenges reflected the enormity of the academic and intellectual challenges ahead. Geographical, political barriers, and, in some cases, differences in academic terminology often come in the way of Arab academics working constructively together.  In his remarks delivered at the closing dinner, ACRPS Director Azmi Bishara described the ultimate aim of the proceedings in broad terms by speaking of the need to create a “common research culture” which would help define the priorities for research in the social sciences and humanities. “Is it not the case that even in the natural sciences, there are priorities and aims and objectives to be met and research agendas set? Why can’t the same be true for the human-related sciences?,” asked Dr. Bishara, who was commenting on the rudderless state of social sciences and humanities research in the Arabic-speaking world.  

The Idea of Arabness

Arab Nationalism does not fit neatly into a 19th-century European mold. While the feeling of a common Arab identity takes in broad swathes of people who are not only bound together by any ethnic links, but who also hold an amazing variety of religious beliefs. One of the most pressing themes being discussed at the Annual Conference was the need for Arab states to adopt macroeconomic policies which furthered better integration in the wider region.

For attendees of the Conference, of course, the reality of a common Arabness could almost be taken for granted. Faced with the same issues of economic stagnation and a future of instability, there seems to be, on the surface, enough in common between the various Arab states. What brought the diverse group of scholars at the conference together, however, was a sense of a common purpose and what could only be described as a mutual recognition of Arabness: An Arab is anybody who is recognized by other Arabs as being one of them. This may appear to be a tautology, but it might be one that has spared Arab nationalism some of the worst excesses of what was done in the name of European nationalisms. With the Arab Spring proving the futility of the post-colonial juntas, and the growing importance of individual freedoms, this has meant that Arab nationalism is now more of an overcoat and less of a straitjacket. This was, then, a part of the justification for the Conference: freed from the confines of a single, overbearing state, the ACRPS is seeking to give an intellectual expression of what makes the Arabs a nation.

More prosaically, the following questions needed to be answered: What shape would this re-discovered Arab commonality take? Would Arab states form regional blocs, such as the Maghrebi Union and the GCC? What kind of economic policies would bring both the kind of tangible benefits needed for the individual states to prosper, and for the region as a whole to reach “a more perfect union”? Others may have wanted to ask if such a thing was desirable, but the question itself was ever-present throughout the conference. Nonetheless, it could be said that most of those present at the Conference agreed with Izzedine Diab, one of the presenters who made the point in his written submission that “the borders of the Arab Homeland are at the boundaries of each and every Arab state”.  

Regionalism, Economic Policies, Foreign Relations, and Development

One of the seemingly unchallenged assumptions found in the scholarship relating to the Middle East is the governance within a given country and its government’s ability to deliver educational and employment opportunities for its citizens. While it is difficult to prove a causal relationship between the authoritarian nature of a government and its meeting of its citizens’ needs, it remains a widely held opinion. Citing UN development reports from 2011, Arab Prize recipient Hassanein Tawfik used his speech in Doha to make the claim that

… while authoritarian regimes can sometimes successfully achieve development goals, indeed sometimes great strides can be accomplished by authoritarian regimes, particularly in the first stages of development, it remains true that a capable democratic system is, in general, the form of government most capable of preserving and maintaining the gains made by any development plans, and ensuring the sustainability [of those gains].

The above statement was widely echoed throughout the conference and is often encountered amongst Arab intellectuals: to many, it seems almost a truism that flaws in governance are the primary cause for a lack of development. Nonetheless, the prescribed methods to remedy the development deficit are the tools of centralized planning and government action; within this broad school of thought, however, there is space for discussion about which policies exactly would produce the kind of states Arabs yearned for.

According to Ahmad al-Sholi, a young Jordanian researcher who was in attendance at the Conference, a starting point for this advancement would be to foster regions which comprise large sections of the Arab Homeland, the “Middle East and North Africa,” as Al-Sholi referred to it. According to al-Sholi, the problem lies in the fact that regional projects between groups of closely inter-related Arab countries – such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Qatar is a member – have not been able to deliver on their developmental promise. According to the author, the wide differences in levels of wealth between the members of the League of Arab States[1]make the idea of a Pan-Arab economic union, along the lines of the European Common Market, unfeasible. Al-Sholi further suggests the large degree of homogeneity (in terms of the goods and services produced) between the various countries which make up the Arab region creates a situation in which these states’ economies are not complementary.

A case in point may be the GCC itself. ACRPS researcher and energy economist Zoheir Hamedi paints a grim picture for the Gulf states, pointing out that the sale of hydrocarbons provides these six states (Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE) with 70% of their hard currency, and a direct 40% of the overall GDP of those countries. Given such easy sources of income for these countries, the GCC states had no effective incentives to bring them to other sources of energy; furthermore, the “rents” earned through these natural resources have made it possible for the ruling elites of these countries to govern without having to concern themselves with little or no deference towards sustainable development or to legitimacy by popular consensus. While Hamedi’s work was concerned primarily with the economies of the hydrocarbon-rich GCC, this generally rentierist structure applies to Arab states in general (e.g., in Jordan, the state’s rents come from the sale of state assets and phosphates).

The broadly homogeneous structure of Arab economies – characterized by rentierism, overly powerful public sectors, and a lack of employment opportunities, especially for the youth – remain largely similar, even allowing for discrepancies in the levels of income of various Arab countries. According to Ibrahim Saif, a presenter at the Conference who works for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the most pressing of these issues is the lack of employment opportunities for young Arabs. Not only do Arab economies hold insufficient job opportunities for their citizens, but also the areas that experience growth in the Arab countries, such as construction, real estate, hydrocarbons, and finance, are non-labor-intensive. Further to this, says Saif, who cited the work of Nader Kabbani and Leen Habbash, the Arab states have a larger relative size of their public sectors (an average of 17%) than either developed nations or countries in Latin America and Africa.

One related factor is the burgeoning populations of the Arab countries, which, even after what was believed to be a population bulge in the 1980s, continues to rise unabated at about 5% per annum. Saif, his co-author Joulan Abdul Khalek, and al-Sholi shared a particular view at the Conference – the private sector, and only the private sector, could provide the Arab countries with the better levels of development that they are presently striving for. Nonetheless, other researchers present at the conference pointed to another salient point, stating that governments and the public sector were almost always the midwives of the process of development in Western countries.

Mohammed Issa, a scholar at the Egyptian National Planning Institute who came to Doha to attend the Annual Conference, was emphatic that the shortcomings in his own country were a result of a failure to adopt the sort of “guided capitalism” approach of countries such as South Korea and Taiwan. According to Issa’s presentation of the historical material, the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and with it, the remnants of British colonial rule, presented the country with an attempt to consolidate the Egyptian economy in such a way that the country could be industrialized and have a diverse production base. Indeed, the revolutionary junta in charge of the country did try to undo decades of mismanagement of the Egyptian agricultural sector, which produced a single-commodity production base, leaving the country at the mercy of the economic winds. Instead, the “Free Officers” who ruled Egypt after 1952, tried to both institute a planned economy that would place the sources of production in exclusively Egyptian hands, and bring major production facilities into the public sector. In order to achieve their aims, the Free Officers instituted a series of five-year plans beginning in 1957. After the defeat of the Egyptian and other Arab armies at Israeli hands in 1967, Egypt’s focus switched from trying to develop the national economy to one of trying to enhance their armed forces and militarizing the country. Issa, together with a broad swathe of scholars who write on Egypt, dates the downfall of public planning for the Egyptian economy to 1971, shortly after the beginning of Anwar Sadat’s presidency. Under the guise of economic liberalization, says Issa, the Egyptian economy became reliant on a large, unbridled private sector which was not focused on manufacturing, contrary to the emphasis of Latin American and East Asian countries where, according to experts, a manufacturing sector never formed less than about 25% to 30% of a successfully industrializing state. By contrast, Issa cites data that shows the manufacturing sector of Egypt did not exceed 12.5% in the early 1980s.

The Palestinian academic Abdulrahman Tamimi also pointed out how the Arab-Israeli conflict came to impact development, not only in war but in peace as well. According to Tamimi, a major plank of the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian negotiations, which began under US and Soviet patronage in Madrid in the 1990s, was the promotion of greater economic cooperation and liberalization between all sides concerned with the settlement of the Middle East issue. In practice, says Tamimi, this meant Israeli hegemony over the region’s markets - note, for example, how foreign capital now plays a major role in the financing of the Jordanian stock exchange, seriously diminishing Jordan’s capability to control its own economic future (many Jordanians are reliant on social security funding). Tamimi also added that these Israeli-inspired reforms within Jordan paved the way for the privatization of many public services in Jordan, including electricity and the telephone system, as well as water access, which, Tamimi said, needed to be protected as a human right, particularly in arid countries, like Jordan, that want to urbanize. One side effect of this has been the way in which Arab states have had their development stunted. However, the price paid for peace has not delivered the peace of mind needed to reduce military and state-security spending, nor has the price paid for peace afforded Arab states the peace of mind needed to reduce military and state-security spending. Adnan Hayajna pointed out in his presentation at the Conference, Jordan’s share of the national budget which goes to the military and the state security apparatus is equal to the amount spent on education, health and labor rights, combined for the years 2000-2010.

ACRPS researcher and Conference participant Dr. Taher Kanaan, a former Jordanian cabinet minister, further echoed the views of Tamimi, pointing out how the ideology of the free market had come to be regarded by most as a kind of uncontestable totem. Instead, suggested Dr. Kanaan, what was needed was a better delineation between the various spheres of a productive economy: not only a private and public space, but also a realm for the civil society. The main problem, according to Kanaan, is that attempts to promote economic modernization in the Arab countries in the past, specifically in Jordan, have focused on creating opportunities for wealth accruement by political elites, a symptom of a lack of robust, independent oversight facilities in Arab countries. Perhaps one of the most closely followed discussions, delivered by one of the recipients of this year’s Arab Prize in the Social Sciences, was that presented by another Jordanian researcher, Omar Razzaz.

Dr. Razzaz’s paper attempted to provide a roadmap that would lead Arab states out of the morass of rentier economies into more productive societies; this would ultimately spearhead the forging of a new social contract, one which sits “within a new context of a sustainable, civic state which made use of its citizens’ capacities and protected their rights and liberties”. Being more ambitiously prescriptive than others presenting at the conference, Razzaz called for a series of reforms in Arab countries that would progressively bring about a re-structuring of the labor forces and educational systems of the Arab countries, enhanced social justice, and public accountability of the government. Ultimately, argues Razzaz, these achievements ought to be crowned with greater Pan-Arab cooperation not only in the economic arena, but also for the sake of forming a joint bloc that would help to protect the shared political and economic interests of the Arab countries. Such a process, of course, is not the kind of thing which could be agreed in an academic conference; as Razzaz himself put it, “there will never be a one-size-fits-all social contract which matches the needs of all Arab countries, but understanding the importance of the link between the political and economic realms and their interdependence, will pave the way for a discussion about the kind of future we look forward to.”

Language, Colonialism, and Development

Clearly, then, there was a seeming consensus among the Conference attendees on the importance of a collectivist nationalism to the resolution of the Arab countries’ maladies (real or imagined). Beyond the tangible effects of the actual encounter with Israel and the colonial powers, Arabs have also had to face a full-frontal assault on their language and culture. When the more powerful foreigner rules, they have the right to create not only the physical but also the cultural spaces in which we operate. Another well-received speaker who addressed the case of Palestine, and compared it to the contact of Amerindians with Europeans, was Birzeit University’s Abdulrahim al-Shaikh. Al-Shaikh described the Israeli version of the “Columbus Complex,” citing the constant need to find Hebrew names for sites across Palestine. While these efforts began in earnest even before the formal independence of the Zionist state, they began to take a surreal turn, says al-Shaikh, around 2009 when authorities in various Israeli municipalities began dropping the Arabic place-names for sites in the Galilee, the Palestinian Coastal Plain, and the Negev, all of which had been in place since the days of the British Mandate (1920-1948), and replaced them, instead, with Arabic transliterations of Hebrew names (supposedly taken from the Bible).

Official efforts to coordinate the “Hebraization” of Palestine, however, began with the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, with a committee set up to examine appropriate Biblical place-names to hoist onto the geography of Palestine. When this proved difficult in certain cases, Ben Gurion’s famous injunction, as quoted by al-Shaikh, was to “have the names removed [for the sake of the state]”. Al-Shaikh finds in this kind of statement an echo of the intransigent arrogance of Columbus, completely ignorant of the languages of the Amerindians, who said of the place-names he encountered in the New World, “It is not only that these names seem to strange to our ears. They are nonsensical and have no meaning.” Just as with the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, then, the people of Palestine found themselves face-to-face with a colonialist enterprise that did not care to dignify the place-names of their culture.

The situation of course differed in other Arab countries. In some places the post-independence states adopted with gusto the place-names left by European powers: Egypt’s Borsaid was once the English “Port Said” and the Karantina District in Beirut is the site of the old Quarantine (notice the location near the ports, central to the control of the flow of goods). Undoubtedly, Arab countries will have to adapt and accept some concepts from foreign languages, particularly Western European languages, when they embark on any plans to drive to “develop” their countries and revitalize their social sciences, but where does it stop? Assuming that language is one of the few verifiable signs of a common Arabness, at what point does one take it off of its pedestal and begin molding it to suit their own needs?

According to Haitham Sarhan, a lecturer at Jordan’s Philadelphia University, part of the Arab countries’ problems lie in their failure to establish the “language superiority” of their own, common language.**Sarhan, who has worked in the teaching of Arabic to non-native students living in Jordan, says the Arabic language is now being used most extensively for the enhanced monitoring and surveillance of Arab societies and individuals within these societies; nonetheless, we would be remiss to blame foreign powers for the decay in the Arabs’ native language. Instead, the blame lies with the Arabs themselves, who have allowed the Arabic language to atrophy due to a lack of use and a refusal to accept its status as an ever-evolving and inseparable part of Arab civilization.

Sarhan argues that the Arab states worked to ensure the establishment of Arabic literature and language departments in their various national universities, and that these were intended to be expressions of national sovereignty and a reflection of their “aspirations to achieve human development, intellectual sophistication and social prosperity”. With time, the Arabic literature and language departments (he does not distinguish between them) at these national universities fell into one of three categories: (a) Arabic departments that deal with the Arabic language as being an off-shoot of Islamic theology, such as Egypt’s Al-Azhar or Tunisia’s Kairouan universities; (b) Arabic departments which base their approach to the Arabic language on “Orientalist” principles, and were formed during the closing days of Western imperialism in the Middle East, such as the present-day universities of Cairo and Damascus, and Lebanon’s Universite Saint-Joseph; and (c) “modernist” Arabic language departments, which Sarhan claims are a hybridization of the above two models.

Further, Sarhan claims that the inherent conflict between these different types of Arabic departments has had ramifications not only for the academic culture of the study of Arabic, but also for the job prospects for Arabic language and literature graduates. The inability of Arabic departments to train their students in pedagogy has led to a crisis with most university graduates of Arabic coming being prepared to work only as researchers in the field of language and literature, while the only job opportunities available to them were in teaching at schools. While Sarhan’s views may be widely held, it may be instructive examine one of its limitations. In fact, the “Orientalist” universities he mentions, particularly those in Lebanon, had the promotion of the Arabic language as a mainstay of their missions. Even courses in the natural and mathematical sciences were taught in Arabic for the most part of their histories (ending only after the Second World War). Building on a then-active Arab renaissance stretching back generations, these institutions were actively involved in efforts to advance an Arabic language that remained true to its ancient roots but could also express the concepts of modernity and technology. It is difficult to blame any individual institution for the fact that the private sector and civil societies of the Arab countries never fully took up the cause of an Arabized language. Arabic-speakers get strange stares if they refer to their computers as a hasoob, the proper Arabic term (unlike in Hebrew, where use of the word mahsab has become a commonplace). It also remains difficult to prove one way or another Sarhan’s main thesis, which rests on the idea that better “planning” and “coordination” on the part of Arabic language and literature departments at universities would have produced a more robust Arabic language that was more responsive to societal needs. Instead, posits Sarhan, the Arabic language has been reduced to being a mere “tool for communication” rather than a “space for creativity and innovation”. The question then becomes – how many Arab countries have tried to realize the aims espoused by Sarhan, and what were the results of their actions?
Sudan was one of only two Arab countries (together with Syria) that tried to bring about a fully Arabized educational curriculum following the Second World War, after the other Arab states had tried to introduce foreign language curricula at the tertiary level in the natural and applied sciences (the story is more complicated when it comes to the Social Sciences and Humanities). Although it may have seemed impractical, some of the reasoning for such measures can be justified with some straightforward reasoning: if students can actually understand what they are learning, they will be better able to master the subject. Indeed, Sudanese scholar Taj as Sir Al Hassan, cited by Conference participant Kamal al-Khider, has previously made the claim (1986), that the inability to comprehend English was one of the reasons behind the relatively poor academic performance within Sudanese schools. With all the best intentions in the world, however, the Sudanese experiment was scrapped. Economic problems and sweeping desertification in the vast East African country had led to a breakdown of the social structures within Sudan, says Khider. Swelling public discontent peaked in a massive public uprising in the capital Khartoum in 1985, paralyzing the government of dictator Jaafar al-Numeiri. The sweeping reforms that could be imagined by a centralized, powerful government were then put on the shelf.

Even in countries which do not share Sudan’s polyglot multiculturalism and with traditions of more stable rule, the status of Arabic as a language of instruction has faced threats from some unusual quarters: foreign language institutions. Ahmad Hassanein from Egypt, who attended the ACRPS Conference, presented his work detailing how the education of a significant proportion of Egyptian university students in foreign universities (the American University of Cairo and the German Egyptian University) have impacted those students’ ability to empathize with a wider Arab nation.***

According to data reported by Hassanein, there is a definite, inverse relationship between studying in foreign languages and attachment to “Arab causes” (including, for example, the Palestinian cause). In the data set collected during his Egyptian field study, students from Egypt who studied at the American and German universities in Egypt were less likely to be interested in pan-Arab affairs represented in the Egyptian press, to self-identify as Arabs, or even to speak Arabic regularly, compared to their compatriots who study at state sector universities in Egypt. Up to 68 percent of Egyptian students who attend foreign language universities within their own country prefer speaking a language other than Arabic in their day-to-day lives, says Hassanein.


*See the report “The Arabic Language: DNA of a Nation” on the ACRPS website:

[1]al-Sholi cites the relative per capita annual Gross Domestic Products of Qatar, at US$ 85,000, and Yemen, at $2,400, as an example here.
**See Mahmoud Athwadi’s article “The Tunisian Revolution: whither the Arabic Language?” published on the ACRPS website:
***Those interested in Arab film may wish to see the Egyptian film Saeedi fi al gama al Amrikia (“An Upper Egyptian at the American University”)