The main advantage of bureaucracy is that it maintains traditions, appointments and customs despite the change of time and this cconstitutes a significant benefit. Bureaucracy preserves the “agenda” that was set at a time of stability. In our volatile part of the world, it is hard to work in accordance with the latest development since doing so might shake constant values that cannot be overlooked.
To make this point clearer, the issue of development was and will remain an item on the Arab “agenda” and one that can never be overlooked, yet talking about it at the time when the region is hit by one hurricane after another would seem like some sort of luxury. In other words, quenching fires is more priority than reconstruction efforts.
And there are a lot of fires in the Arab world. Some take the shape of scorching flames like in Syria while others are known by their after-smoke and which could signal the end of the fire or herald the beginning of another as is the case in some Arab Spring countries still suffering from the pangs of the transition.
Other Arab countries have their concerns, fearing that the fire will move from the cyber and social media worlds to the actual streets, hoping that some reforms can heal the wounds and bring the situation back to the rosy days of stability.
Arab Economic Summit
All these ideas floated to the surface once it was announced that the Arab Economic Summit will be held in Riyadh. The summit continues a series of conferences previously held in Kuwait in January 2009, and then in Sharm El-Sheikh in January 2011, a few days before the Egyptian revolution began, while the Tunisian revolution was in full throttle.
I have participated as a writer and a journalist in the 2011 summit. Everybody was waiting for the volcano to erupt. When Amr Moussa reminded the participants that what is happening in the region is not “a revolutionary illness,” it was clearly not received positively. The summit convened in Riyadh, and the revolutions already took shape, and in spite of their glow during the past two years, the most pressing question is: what’s next?
Many regimes were toppled, but the situation does not seem to be improving at any level, in fact, they have worsened unreasonably. The rebels did not bring a magical solution to move our region from darkness into the light. On the contrary, what the rebels brought caused an economic bleeding, draining the public wealth and country’s reserves, and ended a progressively economic growth, without achieving any of the claimed revolutionary promise of establishing “social justice.”
However, the Riyadh summit could not neglect what is happening in the region and stay immune to pressing issues in the Arab World. Discourses in the summit were divided into two categories: Traditional topics or issues that were addressed previously and approved in a way or another, but required implementation. One such was the pan-Arab free trade area, which has been belated for three years and needs to be pushed to the next level, which consists of establishing a unified customs system against other economic blocs.
Another example is supporting small and medium-sized enterprises which are considered by the Arab Economic gurus as the key to the comprehensive Arab development, and in “reinforcing the capabilities of the common Arab efforts”, and “encourage the intra-Arab investment” among Arab countries, “the Arab food security”, “and the Arab water security” among others.
But it is worth noting that some new topics are infiltrating the Arab agenda, be it through redefining the content of previously discussed topics without much substance, such as “the environment and sustainable development”, or completely new topics inspired by the general situation that imposed itself on the summit.
In fact, it wasn’t acceptable to neglect that the youth who triggered the Arab revolutions were confused now, looking for a new role in the arena where the old have stayed for too long, more than expected.
The Arab youth throughout the region are not those youngsters from the 1950s and 1960s who laid the foundations of the Arab regime, the Arab country and remained with us until the 21st century. The youth’s cause has many aspects, the economic downturn, unemployment and non-existing job opportunities. However, it also encompasses the needs to reach a new frontier, related to social media technology and the need for self-fulfillment.
The Arab woman too cannot be neglected after gaining her education rights. Between the youth and women, we can see the emergence of civil society organizations, as a growing phenomenon in many Arab societies.
Whether it was related to the old or the new agenda, the summit rang many bells to those who were busy with “days of wrath”, affecting the nerves and wellbeing of many communities, which indeed does not add much to the society or stop the depletion of the resources in many Arab communities.
In fact, this is the biggest impasse, as the main pillars of economic growth and development of the society in every Arab country, are subject to instability and anxiety. The youth that needs to be mobilized is still busy with his “spring” that isn’t blossoming anymore, and affected by many hot sand storms. The woman who is asked to participate gained many benefits in many Arab countries, especially in Saudi Arabia, where its representation in the Saudi Shura Council was raised to 20 percent. However, women in “Arab Spring” countries lost more of their status through the promised “democratic process.” What is more dangerous is that women lost their social status, and were under the attack from hardliners, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, who were pioneers in advancing the women cause and were much more advanced in this progress more than many Arab countries.
On the other hand, the Riyadh summit admitted that the private sector was the real catalyst for economic and social change, be it through its own financing or the Arab funds which promised to increase their financing by 50 percent, at least. But this private sector is subject to political and economic persecution, which reminded some of what happened in the 1960s, coupled with a non-favorable business environment because of the chaos and lack of security and sound economic systems. In addition to the revolutionary movement that affected many Arab countries, exported to geographically close countries as well as cyber space neighbors.
The summit rang the bell about the importance of development and modernity, but it seems to have failed in speaking out loud about the obstacles that hinder these ambitions.
This article was published on Al Sharq al-Awsat on Jan. 30, 2013.
Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.