For a long time when people abroad thought of the Middle East, they envisioned a vast expanse of barren desert inhabited by a coarse and callous people. Had it not been for the accidental discovery of large reserves of oil beneath the sands, they would never have known the opulence they display today. The wealth did little to improve the image.
Some years ago, an Egyptian political scientist summed up foreign knowledge of this region with what he called the Bs: the Bomber, the Belly Dancer, the Billionaire, the Bazaar man and the Bedouin. In usage they often imply varying degrees of violence against women, minorities and affiliates of other faiths. Inevitably, the “Oriental despot” figures somewhere in the backdrop.
Although the three divinely revealed religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - originated in this region, awareness of this fact tends to be the exception. All of which adds up to what political sociologists call a generally negative national stereotype.
We find none of the traits with which the Arabs describe themselves such as generosity, hospitality to strangers, honour and courage in the face of adversity. The Arab-Israeli War played an important part in disseminating the stereotype. There were moments when it was reassessed, as occurred during the October 1973 War, when president Sadat took his historic peace initiative to Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia proposed the Arab Peace Initiative.
At the outset of the Arab Spring, the Arabs were as though reborn in Western eyes. They were suddenly taking great strides towards modernism, globalisation and progress. When the Spring winds shifted and unleashed tempests of anarchy, civil strife and religious extremism, the Arabs had reverted to form.
What really happened in the Arab region during that period was perpetual chaos, civil warfare and reform. The latter gained momentum in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. The UAE had already taken the lead in implementing what Abu Dhabi called its “ten commandments” of reform which included tolerance, acceptance of diversity, building the future, appreciating the capacities of youth and human fraternity.
This group of countries espoused the concept of the nation state for all its citizens without discrimination. They have been doing their utmost to catch up with global progress, not through the mere transfer of Western experiences in technology and value systems, but by searching for wisdom wherever it is to be found in East or West.
Perhaps the closest example of this trend is the experience of the countries of East and Southeast Asia which had achieved astounding progress in a few decades of determination and hard work. This has encouraged the belief that Arab countries do not have to climb the ladder of previous industrial revolutions; they can go straight to the latest technological revolutions, especially those that best serve the immediate needs of their people for food and housing.
When we look back over three decades since the Earth Summit in the 1990s, it seems as though this region has been destined to converge with the ship of climate action that has just weighed anchor in Sharm El-Sheikh for COP27 with sights set on COP28 in Dubai next year.
This succession is indicative, firstly, of the extent of Arab concern for the dangerous developments related to climate change and, secondly, of the Arab awareness that grappling with this challenge simultaneously presents an opportunity to produce the green technologies to save humankind and the planet and solving the grave problems that can not be addressed using the technologies of the first, second or even the third industrial revolutions.
The Arab world is just in time to seize the advantages of the fourth and fifth technological revolutions in order to turn extensive swathes of arid yellow sand to verdant green. There is no better symbol for the green revolution this region has embarked on than the great Green Middle East initiative launched by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman at an Arab summit in October 2021. The Saudi pavilion in the Blue Zone in Sharm El-Sheikh contains a unique presentation explaining that initiative. Outside the conference area, Saudi Arabia created a large exhibition featuring displays of what the initiative has already accomplished.
The second edition of the Green Middle East initiative was launched in Sharm El-Sheikh on 7 November at a summit cochaired by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The event, which took place in tandem with the COP27 Summit of World Leaders, was attended by heads of state from around the world, including those from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the Middle East and Africa.
The Saudi-Egyptian chaired summit occasioned a unique regional dialogue on climate change. The Green Middle East initiative outlines a clear and ambitious roadmap for regional climate action aimed at ensuring sustained, concerted and coordinated efforts towards the realisation of collective aims. It offers excellent economic opportunities that will strengthen sustainable development, promote economic diversification, create jobs, stimulate private sector investment across the region and open horizons for the coming generations.
The participants in the 2022 Green Middle East initiative summit are committed to the goals Saudi Arabia outlined in the opening session. These include reducing carbon emissions in the region by more than 10 per cent of global emissions and planting 50 billion trees across the region in accordance with the largest ever forestation programme in the world.
Progress is unfolding in different ways in the Arab countries that have spearheaded the reform tide. But the processes all engage new technologies to generate solar energy, desalinate water, produce green hydrogen and build smart, green cities, sparkling examples of which we see in Sharm El-Sheikh and New Alamein on the North Coast. Another initiative, NEOM in Saudi Arabia, will break new boundaries on the path to progress. It will be the first transborder and transcontinental city, spanning Asia and Africa across the Gulf of Aqaba to Sinai.
The Arab reform countries are leading the Arab region and the Middle East to the green era of Arab history.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.