In the latest of its “Future Assessments” series, appearing on 27 March 2018, the Abu Dhabi-based Future for Advanced Research and Studies Centre (FARAS) featured “Ten Issues: Why Calls for Restoring Hope are on the Rise in the Arab Region”. The assessment was inspired by the Arab Hope Makers initiative, launched on 14 February 2018 by UAE Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid, which seeks to transform the prevailing Arab mood from the overwhelming hopelessness and despair that set in during one of the most difficult periods in modern Arab history into a mood of forward-looking optimism informed by the faith in one’s own ability to make change.
The assessment argues that a number of socio-political factors or activities contributed to the spread of the recent wave of “hope restoration in the Arab region”.
They include the “desire to make change” as manifested in the role human beings are playing through concrete initiatives that help improve the general quality of life; engaging in the “support for reformist political leaders to reach power through elections”; “supporting people liberated from terrorist organisations”; “providing those wounded in armed conflicts and terror attacks a window of opportunity to live”; “preventing militias from holding a monopoly of power”; “combating poverty in crisis-hit developing communities”; “funding youth projects in certain economic sectors”; “integrating disabled people into Arab societies” and “increasing community health awareness of serious diseases”.
The assessment contains numerous details and examples to document and illustrate how Arab societies are overcoming the hardships they have endured since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring which ended with the proliferation of militias and terrorist organisations, civil warfare, and even the emergence of a full-fledged terrorist state that unleashed untold horrors and atrocities beneath the banner of a self-proclaimed “caliphate”.
Ultimately, the key to overcoming the hopelessness that set in resided in Arab civil society. Civil society in the Arab region acquired growing importance during recent decades as it increasingly undertook many of the developmental tasks and functions that governments were often unable to perform.
When social and political circumstances deteriorated severely during the Arab Spring phase, civil society and its various official and non-governmental organisations and associations shouldered even more of such responsibilities under particularly gruelling and complicated circumstances.
Now that the storms appear to be subsiding, Arab civil society is contributing to the transitions from instability to stability, from war to peace and from social division to national unity. It is also contributing to the peaceful transformation from centralised authoritarian states to governmental systems that offer their citizens sufficient space for effective political and economic participation.
The critical factor in all this is the psychological dimension. The rubble and residue of strife and warfare have taken a heavy toll on Arab psychology. They have instilled the substance for hatred, intolerance of the other and separatist and secessionist drives.
Converting all this into hope, future-building, and economic and social development is far from easy. It requires leaders endowed with the skills and capacities to undertake that difficult task which is sometimes linked with the need to reconstitute the state, itself, in a manner commensurate with the new circumstances and requirements.
It is heartening that the ideas towards these ends are emerging from many Arab countries, as the FARAS assessment indicates. These ideas are giving fresh impetus to hope-making which has become the most important political process to unfold towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century.
But even as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Cairo and Tunis are engendering numerous civil society initiatives and associations, the state has an indispensable role to play in the advancement of a reformist project that is more comprehensive than the sum of the individual civil society initiatives.
Accordingly, the state, which up to the beginning of this decade, led to the explosion of revolutions, Muslim Brotherhood rule and the rise of terrorist movements of all sorts, cannot remain the same.
In this context, the reformist movement is advancing cautiously in that precarious zone between conservative and traditionalist trends that often breed the attitudes and outlooks that endorse terrorism and the revolutionary trends that seek to overturn societies entirely, only to yield more of the destruction that we have seen in recent years. The reformist movement is hardly new. It has existed at all times in Arab societies.
But it has always been assailed from both the left and right, which is to say from the aforementioned “revolutionary” and the “conservative/traditionalist” trends.
Now, there is an opportunity available to those who seek change, not to the accompaniment of war and strife or political partition and secession, but through peaceful and constructive means.
At the same time there are some propitious circumstances. Not least is a demographic factor: a high ratio of youth in societies that have suffered as much from the consequences of revolution and war as they had suffered from the consequences of stagnation and rigidity before that.
Youth, today, are now eager to play a role, whether through civil society organs or through the state, and they are equipped to do this, especially now that they are armed with the human experiences and knowhow transmitted through IT advances which have equipped them with more knowledge about their homelands and, at the same time, about others elsewhere in the world.
Reviving hope is not an idle dream. It is grounded in a grassroots base that is yearning to catch up with the rest of the world with all its modern technological and industrial advances.
At the same time, we have no other choice but to revive hope at a time when the international order stands at the threshold of another cold war which will divert attention away from our problems here in the Middle East, meaning the Arab world holding its own fate in its own hands in the coming phase.
Perhaps the starting point for that phase should proceed from the basic values of the state, especially with respect to the economy, which means promoting the values of the free market, entrepreneurship and the development of the relevant institutional frameworks for this. In this regard, it is clear from Vision 2030 and similar development plans that a number of Arab states are ready to break with certain long-held taboos especially when it comes to the public sector and certain public sector institutions that had acquired an aura of sanctity over the years.
An indication of this is to be seen in the fact that the Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco and the Egyptian petroleum company Enppi are being prepared to list some of their shares in international stock markets.
It is also significant that Arab governments and their leaders are experiencing a resurgence in hope. Much of their optimism is also pinned on the new generations and their ability to rebuild their countries and lead them to more advanced echelons among the ranks of nations.
In addition, Arab assessments of their assets have also changed. No longer is Arab wealth calculated in terms of just oil and gas. Other factors are factored in, not least of which are this region’s vast unexploited land resources and their vast and equally unexploited human resources.
The reassessment of what we actually have and the realisation that the resources we utilise are only a fraction of what we could be utilising with the aid of sound management and modern technology.
It marks the starting point on a rapid path towards an Arab world that is less miserable than it has been in recent memory and much happier than it has been for a long time.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly