September 12th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

A decade after 9/11: Enduring lessons for the Arab world

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Let me tell you about the most influential book to be published since 9/11, at least according to me. It's actually not a book but a report - a United Nations report written by a committee. I'm talking about the Arab Development Report published in 2002.

After 9/11, in the midst of the discussion of what was happening in the Arab world, why it was the source of this terrorism, the UN Development Program's head, Mark Malloch Brown, commissioned a study of the Arab world looking at political, economic and social issues. But he insisted it be researched and written by Arabs so there was no accusation of an outsider's bias or neocolonialism. The result was a brutally frank document that was a sensation. It was downloaded off the internet 1 million times.

The report documented the stunning decay of the Arab world. If you want to explore the conditions that produced al Qaeda, read this report. Take a look at some of the most damning statistics. When the nonprofit Freedom House rated world regions on a broad range of political and civil rights, Arab countries came last. Look at the economy - the UNDP report highlighted that the entire Arab League put together - that is 22 countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt - had a smaller GDP than Spain. Fifteen percent of Arabs were unemployed compared to a global average of 6 percent at the time.

Then there's education: In 2002, 65 million adults, one of every four Arabs, were illiterate. One of out of every two Arab women couldn't read or write. And for the few Arab readers, there wasn't much choice. The entire region was translating just 330 books a year - one fifth the amount that Greece translates every year. All these statistics showed how the Arab world was worse off than everywhere except Sub-Saharan Africa.

Now, what caught my attention this week, almost a decade later, is that much of the data in that report is unchanged or barely changed. On jobs, the region now suffers some of the highest unemployment rates in the world. And the raw number of Arabs who can't read or write has actually increased. Other indicators have worsened, too. Somalia is now suffering from a deadly famine. And the last decade, Sudan's Darfur region becomes the mass crimes against humanity - one could go on.

In case you've been keeping track, the only real indicator of the Arab world's health that has actually improved since the UNDP report was published is its GDP. The Arab League's combined gross domestic product has quadrupled.

But here's the revealing statistic: The price of oil almost rose at the same rate. And that kind of oil-produced growth doesn't trickle down and it certainly doesn't help the tens of millions of Arabs in the region's most populous countries like Egypt and Syria that have little oil. According to World Bank data, it has taken three decades for the average Arab person's income to double since 1980. Meanwhile, inflation helped market prices double in just the first seven of those 30 years.

And so, now, we have the Arab Spring - from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, repressive dictators are being toppled by people power. There's no doubt that this is great news. But remember, all other Arab regimes have managed to remain in power through a mix of repression and bribery. From Jordan to Oman to Saudi Arabia and Syria, increasing subsidies might delay popular resentment but it won't change the facts on the ground. And the crucial point is that even democracy will only succeed if these underlying social statistics on literacy and jobs and women's rights improves.

Ten years on from 9/11, the Arab world remains in denial. A recent Pew study shows the majorities in all Muslim states think that Arabs were not responsible for the attacks of September the 11th. Three out of four Egyptians hold that belief, for example. Now, that is simply nonsense. Instead of bizarre conspiracy theories, the Arab world needs to focus on the dire statistics the UNDP highlighted almost a decade ago.

The Arab spring is a first step for those countries that it has touched, but it needs to be a springboard for 300 million Arabs to look deep within and address the fundamentals that their leaders have neglected for decades - education, women's rights, economic reforms, jobs and real freedom.


soundoff (333 Responses)
  1. Kat

    When will Americans do a self-critical study on the root causes of terrorism. How have American policies for the past decades prior to 911 and after have contributed to violence, hate, blood spilling and terrorism? How many Arab and Muslims were victimized by these policies?...It's funny because terror leaders never say their goal in resorting to terrorism is to convert people, kill infidels or because of our way of life or because they want to start a global clash of civilizations. This is what war mongers here in the US tell the average uneducated Americans of world history, events and politics All the terror leader talk about is America's hostile policies in their region.

    September 13, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  2. Jose M. Pulido

    Mr. Zacaria wrote, "/the fundamentals that their leaders have neglected for decades – education, women's rights, economic reforms, jobs and real freedom."
    In order to improve their educational, social and economists status around, the self-styled "Arab world" needs to get rid of the Islamist ideology and its ruthless civilian, religious and military dictators; Islam leads to these kinds of dictatorships.
    Once the people pressed by Islam realize how wrong they have been by following such a harmful ideology, they will (as usually) blame the USA and Israel for their maladies caused by Islam; they will probably say that we enhanced and preserved Islam in order to keep them stupid, uneducated and ignorant.
    In reality, if we had anything against Islamists, we would indeed encourage Islamic countries to preserve and keep such ideology within their borders in order to keep them in such a bad situation as described in this article; therefore, Muslims should be glad we are trying to help them to get rid of Islam because it is the cause of their ruin and of infamous terrorist attacks as on the one the WTC.
    .

    September 16, 2011 at 1:50 am | Reply
    • Helen

      "Muslims should be glad we are trying to help them to get rid of Islam." Although it was not the official reason, getting rid of Islam was the intention of many American leaders, and of some soldiers who went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if Muslims accuse us of executing a Christian holy war against them, we complain we are just trying to help them. More American hypocrisy.

      September 16, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Reply
  3. Helen

    All the more reason to keep GI boots off Arab ground, and send them books not bombs.

    September 16, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  4. .die

    I have being living in the Arab World for the past 6 1/2 years. First I have my Profession and second I extracted an element out of it and build a Health Awareness and Community Project. The conclusion was: they let me do until a certain point then wanted to highjack the program (trophy hunting). As I didn't let this happen (I knew they will never further develop it) they started to Assassinate my Character where I got even Death threats. The project died slowly. The whole thing also affected my Business- and Social-Network. The conclusion was that my Economical ability declined where I could not do business anymore. I have not brake-even until today – an expensive experience
    As a comparison – I have traveled a lot even being an Adventurer. Those 6 1/2 years where the worse I ever have experienced in my whole life. Now I'm leaving and ring changes to other places.
    I hope I find the time to compile all in a book.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:39 am | Reply
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