There are many pressing challenges facing the countries of this neighborhood, but perhaps the most pressing is to actually become more than simply a geographic region whose boundaries were drawn by outsiders and colonizers. We need to evolve into a region characterized by cooperation and the pursuit of common interests--a real community of nations.
In our so-called region there are many, many long-standing disputes and unresolved issues that set nation against nation and divide our societies. There is, for instance, Israel, which refuses a settlement to its conflict with the Palestinians unless on its own, unreasonable terms. It continues to reject the Arab peace initiative, which would close this file, and so instead the conflict simmers and continues to be a major driver of regional instability. Iran, on the other hand, in its determined pursuit of power and influence in the region, is promoting fractures along ethnic and religious lines that go far beyond the Sunni-Shi'te divide.
We have also been "blessed" with oil. Our large oil reserves are the main reason for major powers to interfere in our internal affairs. This meddling has divided the countries of the region against each other making them easier to control. This has been the case since the beginning of the last century, is true today and will be so for the foreseeable future. We must redouble our efforts to neutralize this tool that has been used to divide us for too long.
Foreign interference, driven primarily by energy-related interests, has resulted in an increasing animosity toward the West, and the US in particular. Conflict and occupation in Iraq have fueled the growth of mutual distrust and hostility between the West and Arabs and Muslims. This has culminated in a broad-spectrum jihad against liberal democratic institutions that fails to acknowledge what we can and must learn from the western experience. Reversal of this trend will require sustained efforts in which we, as a regional community, need to take the initiative. We must lead the effort to stabilize and build states in our region through negotiation and consensus, instead of leaving the way clear for misguided and counterproductive foreign interventions.
Internally, Arab states are in disarray and Israel is looking increasingly fractured domestically. There are three major challenges we must confront. First, most of the states face a problem of legitimacy as a result of regime stagnation. The major concern of every regime seems simply to be self-preservation. In many Arab states, there is now hardly any recognizable difference between republics and monarchies. None allow any genuine political participation, there is little respect for citizens' rights and freedoms and democracy is a distant dream. In addition, because the regimes are mainly concerned with their own survival, the delivery of public services is very poor, souring and disintegrating their relations with their citizens.
The second challenge, which may have arisen as a result of the first, is the surge of traditionalism and conservatism over modernity and liberalism. This reactionary trend has nurtured the phenomenon of terrorism, both internal and international. It's a challenge to be reckoned with. Israel is not immune--its rightist and orthodox sectors are also problematic in this regard.
It is little wonder then that regimes consume all their energy simply surviving. That in turn means little money or effort is devoted to the third challenge facing the countries of this neighborhood: to develop their societies. Across the region there is rising poverty, illiteracy and greater economic disparity and the Arabs lag far behind in terms of scientific and technological achievement.
If we do not face up to these challenges, there is a very real possibility of state collapse. Vibrant, visionary, committed and bold leadership is needed. Sadly, our track record is not encouraging. In the 1960s and 1970s, the main concern of Arab states was Arab unity and the dream was a United Arab States. Today, because of a lack of trust, regime rivalries and a toothless Arab League that has failed to come up with regional solutions to regional problems, states are facing a real danger of disintegration. Rather than Arab unity, countries like Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon face a very imminent danger of fragmentation. Israel, the US and Europe, whose policies have reinforced this regional disintegratiion, have demonstrated great irresponsibility in postponing the completion of a comprehensive regional peace agreement. To all intents and purposes, under the noses of the US and Europe, Israel has ignored its long-term interests in favor of a short-sighted quest for more territory and natural resources.
Perhaps it is the clear and present danger of collapsing states that will finally help forge a community, crossing all ethnic and religious boundaries, committed to working together to find solutions to the challenges in our neighborhood. Our nations need to face reality, tackle the problems that have festered in our neighborhood for decades and become serious player in the broader international community that shapes responses to global challenges. If we do not, the current trend of stagnation, fragmentation and disintegration will continue to drive regional instability and ultimately condemn us to the role of permanent bystander.- Published 30/10/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org