Moving toward a knowledge society in the Arab world.

AuthorMoughrabi, Fouad

IT IS HARDLY SURPRISING FOR THE Western powers to devote a good deal of attention, both scholarly and political, to the region known as the Middle East and North Africa. Such was the case during the colonial period for obvious geopolitical and purely commercial reasons. It was equally the case in the post-colonial period when the Western powers launched a fierce assault against the rising Arab nationalist movement led by the charismatic Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. This coincided with the rise of the Cold War when the region became an arena for the competition between the two major superpowers. The question of oil was always in the background and it figured prominently in the agendas of the major powers, initially the British and the French and later the Americans.

The region has therefore been a zone of military intervention, repeated warfare, long periods of civil war, coups and other internal conflicts. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 complicated the situation even further, at times resulting in major military confrontations and the rest of the time in periods of costly low intensity conflict. This meant that considerable resources have been devoted to armaments and defense. In fact, it is safe to say that the region has not witnessed any protracted period of normalcy in the post WWII period and has therefore taken the lion's share of global arms deliveries.

The levels of Western scrutiny and involvement have become much more intense in the aftermath of the events of 11 September, 2001. Prior to this date, the Middle East and North Africa region was largely exempt from the vigorous democratization schemes that were applied to Latin America, the new countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics as well as parts of Asia. In the case of the Middle East, stability was preferred and the various autocratic regimes could be depended upon to ensure the flow of oil to the rest of the industrialized world.

The region has become a primary target for a full array of interventions ranging from the political/military to various democracy promotion schemes that include educational and curricular reforms and attempts to win over the hearts and minds of the Arab people. One phrase keeps recurring in the political literature, initially attributed to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who imperiously urged the need to "drain the cesspool", meaning to wipe out religious extremism. The states in the region were enlisted in the so-called "war on terror" and therefore security became the overriding concern of all governments with all that it entails in costly weapons acquisition and training. The illegal occupation of Iraq was supposed to provide the key leverage for the democratization of the entire region.

This enormous project, instigated and led by the United States Government, has been joined by various think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, the U.S. Institute of Peace and many others. In addition, it has been joined by the European countries and by various U.N. agencies. The United Nations Development Program issued a series of Arab Human Development Reports beginning with the highly publicized and much discussed 2002 report (AHDR 2002) that identified three main deficits in the areas of freedom, education and women's empowerment as major obstacles to human development. This was followed by another highly publicized report (AHDR 2003) that dealt with the subject of education and focused primarily on the status of knowledge in the Arab world and the consequent need to promote a knowledge society. This report was drafted by a group of respected Arab scholars and intellectuals known for their liberal and progressive writings. Another report dealing with issues of freedom and governance was released in 2004 (AHDR 2004) followed by another in 2005 (AHDR 2005) focusing on the rise of women in the Arab world. In addition, the World Bank has issued a number of reports dealing with quality of education as well as the relationship between investment in education and economic growth in what it refers to as the MENA region (World Bank 1998, 2007).

A systematic evaluation of this massive output is badly needed but it is beyond the scope of this chapter. A major critique of the colonial and postcolonial period was carried out by the late professor Edward Said (1978) in his major oeuvre Orientalism which he defined as a "corporate institution for dealing with the Orient- dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it." Edward Said went to great lengths to show the intimate relationship between political power, in this case imperial power, and the kind of knowledge produced by the West to sustain it.

The same insights produced by this seminal work are as applicable today as they were during the colonial period, to a large extent because nothing much has really changed. In a review of Orientalism twenty five years after the publication of his book, Edward Said (2003, p.4) had this to say: "I wish I could say that general understanding of the Middle East, the Arabs and Islam in the United States has improved somewhat, but alas, it really hasn't. For all kinds of reasons, the situation in Europe seems considerably better." Said goes on to show a hardening of attitudes in the U.S., the triumph of generalizations and cliches and a simplistic contempt for dissenting voices.

In our era, a widely discredited book like Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind (1973) is reprinted and given by the Pentagon to U.S Army officers to teach them how to understand the so-called Arab mentality. Anthropologists are hired to advise the U.S. army on how to deal with Iraqi and Afghani tribesmen in order to enlist their support as they devise new counterinsurgency techniques. While thousands of American students flock to Arabic language classes showing a keen desire to understand the region, the quality of scholarship about the region remains lamentably poor and increasingly subject to political constraints.

This article will be limited in focus and will examine the 2003 Arab Human Development Report, Building a Knowledge Society (AHDR 2003); the evaluation of this report undertaken by the Brookings Institution in 2008 entitled "A New Millennium of Knowledge? The Arab Human Development Report on Building a Knowledge Society, Five Years on" (Lord 2008); and finally the contribution of the World Bank on the quality of education in the Middle East and North Africa entitled, "The Road Not Traveled: Educational Reform in the Middle East and North Africa," released in 2007 (World Bank 2007).


The reports produced by the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank and the Brookings Institution usually deal with the entire region as the primary unit of analysis. In addition, they undertake comparisons with other regions of the world on a variety of issues, mostly citing numbers to illustrate differences. Undoubtedly, performing this kind of analysis may be helpful in some respects because it can shed light on some key problems and can also place these in a comparative perspective. It is important for instance to know what the average infant mortality or literacy rates are for the region and how these rates compare with, say, Latin American countries. Beyond this, however, this kind of analysis does not really yield much.

There are significant differences among these countries: the oil-rich countries of the Gulf have a different set of problems from poor, low income countries such as Djibouti, Yemen or Jordan. These countries have their own history, their own socio-economic characteristics, and their own political problems. It would make more sense to treat them as one bloc. North Africa is potentially another bloc with its own unique history, colonial legacy, and socioeconomic characteristics. For a variety of historical reasons, it also makes more sense to treat Egypt by itself. The remaining countries can be examined as yet another bloc. What I am suggesting here is that it makes methodological sense to disaggregate the region if one were really interested in generating meaningful social science data that could inform policy-making in a variety of areas of public life.

The tendency to view the entire region as a unit of analysis was originally motivated by the military/security requirements of the imperial powers. However, what makes sense for military and security planners does not necessarily always make sense from a developmental perspective. In this case, what is needed is a rigorous attempt to produce data that should be placed and examined in some kind of context. Otherwise, policy recommendations will remain too general and much too vague to be helpful.

In the second place, even though a comparative perspective is always useful...

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