Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation – Gibran Khalil Gibran.
UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) recently published a study prepared by close to two dozen writers and intellectuals from the Arab world.
The Arab Integration, a 21st Century Development Imperative report addresses audaciously many of the social, economic, political ills of the Arab world. The more than 300-page report enumerates a litany of futile steps taken in the last 60 years to “integrate” countries in the region.
As an example, in 1957, member states of the Arab League signed a progressive overarching Economic Unity Agreement (EUA) advocating “free movement of persons and capital; the free exchange of goods and products; freedom of residence, work-free use of modes of transport and civil ports and airports for all Arab citizens”.
In the same year, six European countries established what became known as the Common Market.
More than five decades later and the European nations, which were shaped for the most part by hundreds of years of the most devastating wars known to humanity, have turned their Common Market into a complete union.
On the other side, the 1916 secretly-crafted “Sykes-Picot” Arab states are fragmented further and their 1957 EUA is not even worth the paper it’s written on.
In theory and unlike nations within today’s European Union, the Arab world has much more firmer unifying attributes like shared language, history and religion. Apparently though, the legacy of war was more merciful than the relics of colonialism when it came to promoting democratic values and integration.
For, death and destruction triggered the detoxing of corrupt political systems in Europe. While colonialism left behind feeble “unrepresentative Arab regimes that took their legitimacy from international powers and not from the people..”
While the ESCWA study did not overtly call for removing restrictions of movement, it points out that the biggest hindrance of trade between Arab countries are governments’ protectionist measures, “non-tariff barriers and the high cost of transport”.
For instance, the report finds that a modest five per cent reduction in the transport cost combined with free movement of Arab labour and local resources “would double the rate of income rise” in the region.
Unsurprisingly, these small steps would bring significant benefits for all countries not just to the poor at the expense of rich. In fact, the study argues that rich countries like “the UAE is one of the countries that would benefit most” by removing governments’ restrictions.
Keeping in mind recent political upheavals, ESCWA conducted public surveys in 15 Arab countries where it surmised that the impetus for political change in the Arab world has passed the point of no return. “For the first time, the Arab people have stepped ahead of their leaders, demanding open governance and freedoms on a scale that no single Arab country will be able by itself to provide.”
Unfortunately, stepping “ahead of their leaders” has not been without the pain of war. The struggle against the Syrian tyrant has turned into an outsider-managed civil war aiming to destroy Syria; the foreign “remote-control” change of dictatorship has fragmented Libya, and Egypt continues to struggle with its democracy.
ESCWA report concludes with a warning that in the 21st century some of the Arab countries can’t continue to rely on non-sustainable natural resources to survive.
Arab states must choose between democracy and integration, or further disintegration along sectorial and tribal allegiances, endangered to be relegated to the sidelines between major trade hubs to the East and West.
Mr. Jamal Kanj (www.jamalkanj.com) who is one of the frequent contributors for The 4th Media writes regular newspaper column and publishes on several websites. He is the author of “Children of Catastrophe,” Journey from a Palestinian Refugee Camp to America. A version of this article was first published by the Gulf Daily News newspaper.