The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA) recently published a study titled The Arab Integration: A 21st Century Development Imperative. Prepared by over two dozen writers and intellectuals from the Arab World, this report (spanning more than 300 pages) talks about the social, political and economic challenges that the Arabs are facing nowadays.
More importantly, the UNESCWA Report also addresses the problems that lie ahead in the Arab integration roadmap.
The Case of Arab Integration
A Historical Reference
Back in 1957, member-states of the Arab League signed an Economic Unity Agreement (EUA) that, among other things, intended to promote “free movement of persons and capital; the free exchange of goods and products; freedom of residence, work-free use of modes of transport and civil ports and airports for all Arab citizens”.
That very year, six European countries decided to establish what would later be known as the Common Market.
Over five decades later, the Europeans have managed to turn their Common Market into a full-fledged Union. On the other hand, the Arab states have painstakingly ensured that their divisions and differences multiply with each passing year. Sadly, the 1957 EUA has become a distant memory.
This is disappointing and, more importantly, shocking. The Arab nations have a lot in common. Language, culture, religion, history — you will not have a hard time seeking unifying forces across Arab countries. In case of Europe, though, unifying forces are nearly non-existent. Cultural, social and political differences, as well as a history of devastating wars — this is what most European states seem to have in common with each other. Yet, when it comes to integration, Europe seems to be doing better than the Arab World.
Reading The UNESCWA Report
The UNESCWA Report does mention a good number of reasons behind the failure of Arab integration. For a start, it blames the fact that nearly all Arab countries are ruled by “unrepresentative regimes that take their legitimacy from international powers and not from the people”.
The protectionist policies of Arab governments, as well as “on-tariff barriers and the high cost of transport” too are mentioned in the report. This is noteworthy especially because if transport cost were to be reduced by, say, 5%, coupled with free movement of labour and resources, the rate of income rise in the Arabian region would be doubled instantly.
The UNESCWA Report also talks about the recent political upheavals in the region and concludes that the desire for political change is growing stronger day by day. To quote:
For the first time, the Arab people have stepped ahead of their leaders, demanding open governance and freedoms on a scale that no single Arab country will be able by itself to provide.
Ironically, the report does not talk at length about the fact that attempts for political change in Syria have resulted in tyrannical oppression and civil war, nor does it shed light on Egypt’s struggle with democracy or foreign-inspired change of leadership in Libya.
Lastly, the study also mentions the fact that Arab states, integrated or divided, cannot count on non-sustainable resources of energy forever.
The UNESCWA Report makes several interesting arguments. The benefits of regional cooperation and integration are out there for everyone in the Arab World to see for themselves. The example of the European Union too speaks for itself. With all its faults and differences, EU has managed to emerge as not just a sustainable entity, but even an alternate centre of power in its own right. The Arab countries need to take cue and learn from the European model.
As of now, the Arab World has two options: it can attempt for mutual peace and integration, in order to focus on growth, solidarity and progress; or it can further disintegrate along sectarian lines, and watch the entire region become even more volatile than before.
The first option, without a doubt, seems better. And just to drive the point home, I’ll close this article using a verse composed by Khalil Gibran:
Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.
Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons