Ten years ago this week, the second Gulf War was underway, and many people throughout the Arab World publicly demonstrated their opposition to the American-led military attacks to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait. Today, a decade later, people throughout the Arab World again publicly demonstrate their opposition to the U.S.-led embargo against Iraq, and many march in the streets to support the Palestinian peoples struggle for independence and security.
A decade separates these episodes of widespread Arab political anxiety and street demonstrations, with the prevalent sentiments in both instances being pro-Iraqi, anti-American, and anti-Israeli. Why does the Arab World seem so unchanged?
Many said the end of the Gulf War in 1991 would mark a turning point in our modern history defined by major changes in inter-Arab, Arab-Western, and Arab-Israeli relations. This was anticipated as a consequence of the defeat of Iraq, the demise of the Soviet Union, the emergence of a possible new pro-American coalition in this region, the relative isolation and weakness of the Palestinians and the PLO leadership, and the renewed American and European focus on promoting a negotiated Arab-Israeli peace settlement.
However, a broad-brush look at the Middle East region today reveals some limited changes that have taken place. Yet mainly we see stunning continuity in the underlying forces that define the condition of most Arab people and countries, which might explain why our region remains volatile and often violent.
The most important underlying cause of instability, religious-political extremism, and violence in the Arab Middle East remains the explosive combination of economic distress with degrading and dehumanizing political conditions. Little has changed since 1990-91 in economic and social terms, domestic governance, or regional and global relations.
Domestically, the major decisions in all Arab countries are still made by small groups of people who are very rarely elected and are only symbolically held accountable before their citizens through formal political systems. Where elections do take place in Arab countries, the electoral systems are designed routinely to achieve predictable results that favor the ruling oligarchies and elites. The role of the legal opposition is formulistic, often mainly symbolic and decorative.
The forms and structures of Arab democratization remain thin, predictable, and broadly lacking in credibility. Economic and social conditions in most Arab countries are equally problematic, for they have largely stagnated or worsened in the past decade. Available data for the period 1990 to 1998 shows that Arab population increased by 22% to 270 million, and total Gross Domestic Product (at current prices) increased by 26%, to $589 billion; thus in the last decade gross domestic product per capita (at current prices) increased by just one-third of one percent, rising by $74 to reach $2182 (compared to $2108 in 1990). In real terms (accounting for inflation), the average Arab persons income and living standard have in fact declined slowly but steadily in the past decade.
Take away the 10 percent of wealthy Arabs who live in oil-producing states and enjoy per capita incomes of $15,000 to $18,000, and the reality of our region becomes more grim: the vast majority of Arabs are poor, living on low average per capita incomes that mostly range between $500 and $1500 per year, and that have often declined in real terms in the past decade or two.
When the indignities that the Palestinians and Iraqis suffer at the hands of Israel and American policies are added to the above two realities of Arab domestic oligarchy and socio-economic distress, the frustration and anger of ordinary Arabs becomes more understandable. So it is no surprise that the Arab world in 2001 seems little changed from 1991: The Iraqi leadership and its policies remain the same; bilateral tensions in the Gulf are little changed; a permanent American military presence in the Gulf emphasizes the insecurity of many states there; Arab-Israeli peace-making cannot resolve the Palestinian refugees right of return; peace between Israel and each of Jordan and Egypt is cool; Israel still fears attacks by nearby or distant Arab and Islamic states, while the Palestinians continue to resist Israeli occupation and humiliation; political democratization in some Arab countries remains slow and limited, largely unable to move beyond expanding freedom of expression and association; national economies still depend heavily on central government spending; and, defense and security spending dominate state budgets.
Consequently, most ordinary Arabs grow more frustrated because they cannot translate their education and health gains into better futures for their families. So they seek comfort and change in religion, tribal identity, violence, political ideology, emigration, or rampant materialism.
The tenth anniversary of the 1991 Gulf War is not a happy moment in the Arab World, but nor is it a particularly significant anniversary. This moment shows a region largely mired in stagnant, old, ineffective policies, with most people suffering sustained stress at family level in the political, economic and social spheres.
In the face of this negative picture is the positive fact of young Arab reformers who have started to work in the public and private sectors; but as yet they have not achieved any widespread impact on broad political or economic conditions. It is not clear if they simply need more time, or if their policies simply have no realistic chance of success in the face of entrenched Arab patriarchal and oligarchic realities.