The reopening of the Arab mind

The reopening of the Arab mind

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.