The adage that crises offer opportunities should come with a qualifier: you have to study the situation, draw scientifically-grounded lessons, and only then can you start harvesting the opportunities. Unfortunately, Arabs tend to skip these steps, condemning themselves to repeat the same errors that caused the crisis in the first place.
I am currently researching why Arabs seemingly struggle with crises. I have directly experienced various calamities in the Arab world, such as the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990, the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, the global financial crisis of 2008, the Arab Spring of 2011, the oil price crash of 2014, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
I sense that when it comes to learning from a crisis and enacting the right kind of post-crisis reforms, the Arab world’s efforts leave a lot to be desired. Systemic errors are predictably repeated, and the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and develop new ways of tackling societal problems is frequently squandered.
A tragic illustration is the 2020 Beirut port explosion. Over 18 months have elapsed since the disaster, yet many pivotal questions remain unanswered. What caused the initial explosion? Who was responsible for the initial explosion? Was it an accident, negligence, or a combination? What was the extent to which safety protocols were adhered to before the explosion? And so on. Lebanon has little hope of averting future disasters of a similar ilk without definitive responses to these queries.
Lebanon’s tragedy is by no means uncommon in the Arab world. It just happens to be a recent and salient crisis, but if you run your finger across a map of the Middle East, you will find an abundance of alternative examples. Under its small size and history of relative political openness, Lebanon’s crises are also ones that an Arab can openly discuss.
To implement sound reforms, one must first be able to analyze the crisis’ genesis accurately, but doing so is very challenging if one has to watch one’s words. The same cannot be said of many other prominent crises the Arab world has faced, where researchers must write very carefully. This censorship is a fundamental reason for Arabs’ poor performance in post-crisis growth.
Yet self-censorship is not the only cause – Arabs don’t allocate enough resources to research. I collected data on the number of papers written about a crisis in a particular country from 1960 to 2020. I did this for the Arab countries and the world’s advanced economies (known as the OECD countries). I then adjusted the number of papers for the population, yielding crisis papers per million people in each Arab and OECD country.
The results painted a concerning picture for the other Arabs living with me in this part of the world and me. In 1990, the average OECD country published 540 papers per million people on crises, compared to 270 in the Arab world, i.e., half the number. Moreover, the gap has been getting wider: by 2016, the figures were 6,000 papers per million for the OECD countries and 1,500 for the Arab world, doubling the difference.
To add insult to injury, when you look at who writes the papers, you find that those analyzing crises in OECD countries tend to be written by people working in those countries, as opposed to the Arab world, where the authors are frequently Western scholars working in OECD countries. Since these foreigners understandably have their own research goals, this phenomenon further undermines the value to Arab societies of the scholarly research on Arab crises.
Therefore, the lesson that Arabs are yet to learn is that if you want to learn from your crises and benefit from the opportunities they present, you need to study them properly first. That means having your homegrown scholars research them rigorously and transparently. The Eastern philosopher Confucius captured this sentiment eloquently when he quipped: “Study the past if you would define the future.”