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MUSTAFA AKYOL > The reopening of the Arab mind

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RIYADH – Right on your arrival at the King Khalid International Airport, you can see that Saudi Arabia is not the most efficient country in the world. The maddening lines in front of the passport control boxes, for example, are not only caused by the influx of passengers: The men in uniform who are in charge are stunningly sluggish, unserious and unprofessional. “The system,” if there is any, is bordering on the irrational. One lines stops for 30 minutes while the other one continues, and policemen chat and joke with each other.

“You should leave your logic behind while entering this country,” says a fellow Turkish passenger to me, who is apparently a frequent visitor to the kingdom. “Otherwise, things will drive you mad.”

This comment reminds me of a Saudi friend of mine, who used to note, self-critically, that what his country and many other Arab nations really lack is “human capital.” His point was also underlined more academically by a series of Arab Human Development Reports, which first came out in 2002. That initial report noted sad facts such as that the GDP of all Arab countries was less than that of Spain. In the fields of science, technology, arts or philosophy, the contributions of the Arabs to the rest of humanity have been very slim.

The irony is that about a thousand years ago, things were quite the opposite: Arabs were the world’s pioneers in science, mathematics, medicine or philosophy. That is how they invented algebra, algorithms, or the “Arabic numerals,” which all made their way to the West.

The tragedy is that the Arab world began to stagnate after the 13th century, whereas other civilizations, particularly the West, rapidly moved forward. Moreover, their past glory became a trap for many Arabs, for they kept on looking back to the past, neglecting the present and only fantasizing about the future. Oil money, which came in the 20th century, was first seen as a blessing, but has actually turned into a curse: The flow of easy cash prevented the rise of a competitive capitalist economy, which creates skilled professionals and visionary entrepreneurs.

However, there is good news as well, for the Arab world has been rapidly changing in the past decade, and often for the better. The series of revolutions in the past two years were just the tips of the iceberg: the real dynamic is the rise of a more educated, worldly and individualistic generation.

Moreover, there are also new institutions that are building more open minds. One of them is the very reason why I came to Riyadh: The Abdulrahman Al-Sudairy Foundation, which is an institute with an impressive scope of publications, ranging from Islamic thought to archaeology. The conference they held on the “The Arab Uprisings” brought some of the best scholars from both the region and the West, and was simply first-class.

And then there is the new Arab media, with amazing success stories such as Al-Jazeera. Another up-and-coming one is Al-Monitor, a news and analysis website which focuses on the Middle East and examines it with not foreign but local eyes. Launched by Lebanese-born investor and philanthropist Jamal Daniel, Al-Monitor covers Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey not with “people who sit in Washington,” but with people who live in the Middle East and who think for the Middle East.

All this makes me optimistic about the Arab World. Its transformation to an open, democratic and creative part of the world will certainly take some time and a lot of effort. But it is possible, and it is well worth it.

January/19/2013

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Hasan Kutlay

1/22/2013 10:00:46 AM

This article sounds a bit too optimistic near the end.

Blue Dotterel

1/20/2013 7:06:53 PM

@American, You are attempting to address a point, I suppose?

american american

1/20/2013 3:05:42 PM

blue, what was everyone fighting about before capitalism?

George DD

1/19/2013 6:46:16 PM

What's curious about Saudi Arabia is that the government is pouring billions of dollars into education for females, including the sponsorship of many women to go abroad for post-graduate study. Within several years there will be an entire generation of highly capable female graduates who lack the freedom and opportunity to fulfill their potential. This is almost bound to cause a wave of discontent. Therefore it is probably women who will be the drivers of change in Saudi Arabia.

Blue Dotterel

1/19/2013 6:35:28 PM

The curse in the Arab world, as well as elsewhere, is religious fundamentalism. The successes in the modern world are due to science and the scientific approach to knowledge, not capitalism. Capitalism is largely responsible for the destruction of the global environment and the impoverishment of peoples despite the successes of science. "Competitive capitalism" (Greed) has led to two world wars, and is leading us into a third. Mammon is the God of modernity.

Agnes Smith

1/19/2013 1:01:09 PM

Thanks Al-Monitor. Turki journaists have another media portal to be able to speak freely.There are women journalists who can report life as it is with an emphasis towards gender inequality in thie region. But as you said 'the real dynamic is the rise of a more educated, worldly and individualistic generation' in SA . With no respect to womens rights/equality, there is non of the above = no democracy and re-opening of the Arab mind. You seem to be searching forsomething that doesn't exist.

Shaun Ogden

1/19/2013 12:43:41 PM

Of course, from ancient times, Egypt was a great centre of learning and even throughout the Middle Ages, though not so Saudi Arabia, whose contribution has been slim to say the least. Some see it as the biggest prison for women in the world, while others admire the family business with its hundreds of relatives and friends that run the country, where corruption is a way of life. Then too there is the admirable Luddite mentality that contemptuously frowns on change.

Lev S

1/19/2013 12:41:27 PM

The Arabs were never 'pioneers' of anything, it was the Persians. Having lived in the GCC for most of my life I still always cringe when people mention this.

rich bind

1/19/2013 2:18:41 AM

I would not get too excited. Even now, Turkey has turned back the clock regarding an open society. Journalists that are critical of the government are put in jail and in the last day or so there were wholesale arrests of lawyers being accused of being pro PKK. Strict control of the media is the new standard and even books are censured lest the express views contra to the government, such as evolution. Put this in the context of Turkey being a "progressive" state in the region.

mara mcglothin

1/19/2013 1:36:57 AM

"It is possible and well worth it" MR AKYOL but it is not likely. The Arab World will not be able to keep from squabling among themselves over petty religious issues. An open democracy where you weren't able to discriminate for sex, creed, race, religion, disability, familial statue, and sexual preferences would be wonderful, but wishing it will not make it so.
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