Thursday, February 24, 2011

The tsunami of Arab awakening

WHAT'S unfolding in the Arab world today is the mother of all wake-up calls. And what the voice on the other end of the line is telling us is clear as a bell.

'America, you have built your house at the foot of a volcano. That volcano is now spewing lava from different cracks and is rumbling like it's going to blow. Move your house!'

In this case, 'move your house' means 'end your addiction to oil'.

No one is rooting harder for the democracy movements in the Arab world to succeed than I am. But even if things go well, this will be a long and rocky road. The smart thing for the US to do right now is to impose a US$1-a-gallon (S$1.28 per 3.8 litres) petrol tax, to be phased in at 5 US cents a month beginning next year, with all the money going to pay down the deficit. Legislating a higher energy price today that takes effect in the future, notes the Princeton economist Alan Blinder, would trigger a shift in buying and investment well before the tax kicks in. With one little petrol tax, Americans can make themselves more economically and strategically secure, and free themselves to openly push for democratic values in the Middle East without worrying anymore that it will harm their oil interests. Yes, it will mean higher petrol prices, but prices are going up anyway, folks. Let's capture some of it for ourselves.

It is about time. For the past 50 years, America (and Europe and Asia) have treated the Middle East as if it were just a collection of big petrol stations: Saudi station, Iran station, Kuwait station, Bahrain station, Egypt station, Libya station, Iraq station, United Arab Emirates station, etc.

Our message to the region has been very consistent: 'Guys (it was only guys we spoke with), here's the deal. Keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don't bother the Israelis too much and, as far as we're concerned, you can do whatever you want out back. You can deprive your people of whatever civil rights you like. You can engage in however much corruption you like. You can preach whatever intolerance from your mosques that you like. You can print whatever conspiracy theories about us in your newspapers that you like. You can keep your women as illiterate as you like. You can create whatever vast welfare-state economies, without any innovative capacity, that you like. You can undereducate your youth as much as you like. Just keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don't hassle the Jews too much - and you can do whatever you want out back.'

It was that attitude that enabled the Arab world to be insulated from history for the past 50 years - to be ruled for decades by the same kings and dictators. Well, history is back. The combination of rising food prices, huge bulges of unemployed youth and social networks that are enabling those youths to organise against their leaders is breaking down all the barriers of fear that kept these kleptocracies in power.

But fasten your seat belts. This is not going to be a joyride because the lid is being blown off an entire region with frail institutions, scant civil society and virtually no democratic traditions or culture of innovation. The UN's Arab Human Development Report 2002 warned us about all of this, but the Arab League made sure the report was ignored in the Arab world and the West turned a blind eye. But that report - compiled by a group of Arab intellectuals led by Egyptian statistician Nader Fergany - was prophetic. It merits re-reading today to appreciate just how hard this democratic transition will be.

The report stated that the Arab world is suffering from three huge deficits: a deficit of education, a deficit of freedom and a deficit of women's empowerment. A summary of the report in Middle East Quarterly in the fall of 2002 detailed the key evidence: the gross domestic product of the entire Arab world combined was less than that of Spain. Per capita expenditure on education in Arab countries fell from 20 per cent of that in industrialised countries in 1980 to 10 per cent in the mid-1990s. In terms of the number of scientific papers per unit of population, the average output of the Arab world per million inhabitants was roughly 2 per cent of that of an industrialised country.

When the report was compiled, the Arab world translated about 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece did. Out of seven world regions, the Arab countries had the lowest freedom score in the late 1990s in the rankings of Freedom House. At the dawn of the 21st century, the Arab world had more than 60 million illiterate adults, the majority of whom were women. Yemen could be the first country in the world to run out of water within 10 years.

This is the vaunted 'stability' all these dictators provided - the stability of societies frozen in time.

Seeing the democracy movements in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world succeed in modernising their countries would be hugely beneficial to them and to the world. We must do whatever we can to help. But no one should have any illusions about how difficult and convulsive the Arabs' return to history is going to be. Let's root for it, without being in the middle of it.

Thomas Friedman