The World Cup has helped revive Arab nationalism, fueled by some of the anti-Arab racism exhibited by Westerners during the last two months. However, Arab intellectuals’ persistent inability to provide an effective economic model will condemn the pan-Arab renaissance to failure.
The success of the Moroccan national team during Qatar 2022 has genuinely reinvigorated Arab nationalist sentiment. Seeing leading international footballers and the tourists attending the games adopt many of our customs and commend the hosts has helped, too, as it generates a sense of pride in what Arabs can achieve when they put their minds to it.
Quick to seize upon this have been the ranks of Arab intellectuals – along with their left-leaning Western allies – who have been licking their wounds or lying dormant since the end of the Cold War. Slogans that harken back to the pan-Arab movement of the 1950s and 1960s have reappeared in my WhatsApp feeds. Recruiting new partisans has become much easier considering the neo-colonial bigotry global media outlets have been serving up daily.
However, at the risk of sounding like a wet blanket, I fully expect this renaissance to fizzle out because of the huge gaps in the ideology, combined with an arrogant refusal to introspect by Arab intellectual elites.
The first major problem is that Arab intellectuals either have no economic model, or – as in the majority case – expound a suite of economic policies that has immiserated several generations of Arabs. Arab socialism and various horrific mutants thereof have been applied across the Middle East with disastrous consequences, and they are a key contributor to the high levels of youth unemployment and government corruption that continue to afflict the region.
Further confirmation is reflected in the fact that the only economic success stories in the Arab world are the countries that explicitly rejected this dreadful model: the Gulf states. Moreover, the singularly most successful one – the UAE – has been the biggest proponent of the sort of economic freedom that violates the fundamental tenets of Arab socialism.
Like their Western socialist brethren, Arab socialist intellectuals also love to live in the laissez-faire countries they criticize, enjoying the high salaries and good quality infrastructure in Dubai and Abu Dhabi while scribing anti-capitalist rants. They like to ascribe the Gulf countries’ success to their hydrocarbon wealth, while ignoring the underwhelming economic performance of resource-rich Arab republics such as Algeria, Iraq, and Libya.
Part of this intellectual failure comes from the fact that Arabs – especially elite intellectuals – don’t study economics and make trivial contributions to the modern academic discourse. The academic literature on economic development and political economy has no notable Arab scholars, even though many have been experiencing bad economic policies for most of their lives, putting them in an excellent position to document and reflect upon them. Therefore, we see so many solid contributions from Indian, Russian, and Latin American economists.
Unfortunately, Arab thinkers have locked themselves into an intellectual death spiral whereby they don’t study economics, cling to demonstrably terrible economic paradigms, and then attribute any observed failure to global conspiracies and Western racism. In this sense, the bigotry exhibited by Western media during the World Cup has been a God send for Arab nationalists, as it has allowed them to double down on their discredited economic philosophies.
Almost all the Moroccan national team play in the highly capitalist European soccer leagues. Their ability to train with other elite players and coaches, and to dedicate themselves to their craft due to their high salary, is the most important reason for their success. The same principles explain why the countries that adopted Arab socialism failed, and why the ones that rejected it prospered.
It is tempting to attribute the economic struggles of the Arab world to Western colonialism because it shifts the blame elsewhere. However, many former colonies have become economic success stories, such as Brazil, India, and Malaysia. While Arab intellectuals are not the major cause of the corruption and political repression that has hamstrung the region’s economies for 70 years, their refusal to learn economics and update their thinking is not helping.
Therefore, unless top Arab thinkers suspend their intellectual laziness and cognitive dissonance, Arab nationalism 2.0 will fail. Economic deprivation was a key cause of the Arab uprisings in 2011: people want food, homes, and jobs, and a regurgitated version of Arab nationalism based on the same economic lunacy is an unsatisfactory response.
Hopefully, the legacy of successes such as Expo 2020 and the 2022 World Cup will be that economic freedom combined with sound government planning is the best basis for Arab nationalism, not the socialist trainwrecks that Arab intellectuals continue to cling to.