Robert Fisk: Why does life in the Middle East remain rooted in the Middle Ages?

According to a UN report, the global improvement in living standards has passed much of the Arab world by. Robert Fisk explains why

Share
Related Topics

Why is the Arab world – let us speak with terrible sharpness – so backward? Why so many dictators, so few human rights, so much state security and torture, so terrible a literacy rate?

Why does this wretched place, so rich in oil, have to produce, even in the age of the computer, a population so poorly educated, so undernourished, so corrupt? Yes, I know the history of Western colonialism, the dark conspiracies of the West, the Arab argument that you cannot upset the sheikhs and the kings and the autocrats, the imams and the emirs when the "enemy is at the gates". There is some truth to that. But not enough truth.

Once more the United Nations Development Programme has popped up with yet one more, its fifth, report that catalogues – via Arab analysts and academics, mark you – the retarded state of much of the Middle East. It talks of "the fragility of the region's political, social, economic and environmental structures... its vulnerability to outside intervention". But does this account for desertification, for illiteracy – especially among women – and the Arab state which, as the report admits, is often turned "into a threat to human security, instead of its chief support"?

As Arab journalist Rami Khouri stated bleakly last week: "How we tackle the underlying causes of our mediocrity and bring about real change anchored in solid citizenship, productive economies and stable statehood, remains the riddle that has defied three generations of Arabs." Real GDP per capita in the region – one of the statistics which truly shocked Khouri – grew by only 6.4 per cent between 1980 and 2004. That's just 0.5 per cent annually, a rate which 198 of 217 countries analysed by the CIA World Factbook bettered in 2008. Yet the Arab population – which stood at 150 million in 1980 – will reach 400 million in 2015.

I notice much of this myself. When I first came to the Middle East in 1976, it was crowded enough. Cairo's steaming, fetid streets were already jam-packed, night and day, with up to a million homeless living in the great Ottoman cemeteries. Arab homes are spotlessly clean but their streets are often repulsive, dirt and ordure spilling on to the pavements. Even in beautiful Lebanon, where a kind of democracy does exist and whose people are among the most educated and cultured in the Middle East, you find a similar phenomenon. In the rough hill villages of the south, the same cleanliness exists in every home. But why are the streets and the hills so dirty?

I suspect that a real problem exists in the mind of Arabs; they do not feel that they own their countries. Constantly coaxed into effusions of enthusiasm for Arab or national "unity", I think they do not feel that sense of belonging which Westerners feel. Unable, for the most part, to elect real representatives – even in Lebanon, outside the tribal or sectarian context – they feel "ruled over". The street, the country as a physical entity, belongs to someone else. And of course, the moment a movement comes along and – even worse – becomes popular, emergency laws are introduced to make these movements illegal or "terrorist". Thus it is always someone else's responsibility to look after the gardens and the hills and the streets.

And those who work within the state system – who work directly for the state and its corrupt autarchies – also feel that their existence depends on the same corruption upon which the state itself thrives. The people become part of the corruption. I shall always remember an Arab landlord, many years ago, bemoaning an anti-corruption drive by his government. "In the old days, I paid bribes and we got the phone mended and the water pipes mended and the electricity restored," he complained. "But what can I do now, Mr, Robert? I can't bribe anyone – so nothing gets done!"

Even the first UNDP report, back in 2002, was deeply depressing. It identified three cardinal obstacles to human development in the Arab world: the widening "deficit" in freedom, women's rights and knowledge. George W Bush – he of enduring freedom, democracy, etc etc amid the slaughter of Iraq – drew attention to this. Understandably miffed at being lectured to by the man who gave "terror" a new name, even Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (he of the constantly more than 90 per cent electoral success rate), told Tony Blair in 2004 that modernisation had to stem from "the traditions and culture of the region".

Will a solution to the Arab-Israeli war resolve all this? Some of it, perhaps. Without the constant challenge of crisis, it would be much more difficult to constantly renew emergency laws, to avoid constitutionality, to distract populations who might otherwise demand overwhelming political change. Yet I sometimes fear that the problems have sunk too deep, that like a persistently leaking sewer, the ground beneath Arab feet has become too saturated to build on.

I was delighted some months ago, while speaking at Cairo University – yes, the same academy which Barack Obama used to play softball with the Muslim world – to find how bright its students were, how many female students crowded the classes and how, compared to previous visits, well-educated they were. Yet far too many wanted to move to the West. The Koran may be an invaluable document – but so is a Green Card. And who can blame them when Cairo is awash with PhD engineering graduates who have to drive taxis?

And on balance, yes, a serious peace between Palestinians and Israelis would help redress the appalling imbalances that plague Arab society. If you can no longer bellyache about the outrageous injustice that this war represents, then perhaps there are other injustices to be addressed. One of them is domestic violence, which – despite the evident love of family which all Arabs demonstrate – is far more prevalent in the Arab world than Westerners might realise (or Arabs want to admit).

But I also think that, militarily, we have got to abandon the Middle East. By all means, send the Arabs our teachers, our economists, our agronomists. But bring our soldiers home. They do not defend us. They spread the same chaos that breeds the injustice upon which the al-Qa'idas of this world feed. No, the Arabs – or, outside the Arab world, the Iranians or the Afghans – will not produce the eco-loving, gender-equal, happy-clappy democracies that we would like to see. But freed from "our" tutelage, they might develop their societies to the advantage of the people who live in them. Maybe the Arabs would even come to believe that they owned their own countries.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?