Controversial reports highlight lack of development in Arab world

January 2004 -

The authors of two controversial reports about the growing lack of development in Arab countries received a Prince Claus Prize on 10 December. A panel discussion held in the Rode Hoed in Amsterdam organised the previous day concerned the Arab Human Development Reports, which attracted one million readers in Saudi Arabia alone.

'Prosperity is not limited to material prosperity, economic indicators or even the satisfaction of basic needs, but also includes freedom and effective participation,' explains Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States (RBAS), which is located in Jordan and affiliated with the UNDP. That is exactly the perspective taken in the Arab Human Development Reports, the two reports issued by the UNDP regarding developments in the Arab world in 2002 and 2003. Hunaidi and his team of independent Arabian scholars and policy makers compiled the reports. The 22 Arab countries are lagging further and further behind, is their critical conclusion. The causes are a lack of knowledge, women's rights and freedom.

With this series of reports - which are not always enthusiastically received in the Arab world - the researchers hope to start up a discussion that will ultimately result in a process of social reform. But what is so new in these reports? That was the question posed by discussion leader Paul Aarts, professor of International Affairs at the University of Amsterdam during the panel discussion in the Rode Hoed in Amsterdam. Iranian Asef Bayat, who is affiliated with the ISIM in Leiden, called the publications 'daring' and a 'good definition of human development'. But he also emphasised the complexity of the issues. 'How can we establish democracy in Saudi Arabia when the entire world there heavily protests if women even drive cars?' Bayat believes that a serious discussion about women's rights should have been included in the report. 'You could say that women's rights are only mentioned because that is in fashion. The liberal West appreciates it.'

Philosopher Sadik al-Azm from Syria wrote a book on the same topic several decades ago. And yet he does see reformation aspects in the UNDP reports, as he explained during the panel discussion in the Rode Hoed. 'They are controversial and they are not in keeping with the traditions.' The paradigm since the 1950s has been: people do not care about freedom, they want bread. Arab countries have become an underdeveloped third world. The reports give the proof of what we have suspected for some time. Bits and pieces have been woven together into a cohesive whole. It is true that they contain nothing new, but this is also untrue.'