Shameful. This is the least that can be said about the performance of Arab countries in the 2008 Olympic games, which ended at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing on Sunday. The Arabs left the games with seven medals, of which only two were gold. One athlete, Michael Phelps, won more medals than 22 Arab countries.
Shameful, but not in the least surprising. Winning in the Olympics requires planning, hard work, commitment and institutions that design strategies and invest in the requirements for success. All these are missing in an Arab world still intoxicated by a false sense of supremacy and unwilling to admit failure. The fiasco at the Olympics is not a rare disappointment. It is repeated in almost all aspects of life.
In sport, just as in culture, the arts, science and every other innovative field, the Arabs are behind other nations. Twenty-two countries with over 300 million people and enormous wealth have not made any significant contribution to human achievement for over a century. Indeed, rare are Arab names in the lists of modern global achievers.
The Arab world is living through an era of decay, despite economic success in some countries. Urban development is masking a cultural decline. Wealth and technology have allowed the importation of hardware. But the software necessary to put this hardware to use is absent.
The number of universities is increasing, but the quality of education is declining. Investment in new school buildings is not accompanied by meaningful efforts to raise the professional standards of teachers. Educational reform, in many Arab countries, has been reduced to cosmetic approaches that do not tackle the true sources of educational failure: poor curricula and teaching methods.
Political underdevelopment is the underlying reason behind these shocking declines in the Arab world. Failure to build structures of good governance has suffocated innovation. Scared of engaging with their present, people continue to escape into the past as state institutions favour apathy or subjugation to activism and creativity. Hence it is the alarming United Nations Development Programme finding that Arab educational systems teach obedience and acceptance rather than critical thinking.
The damage has not been restricted to institutions or groups working collectively. Individual innovation has also regressed due to the scarcity of institutional mechanisms designed to adopt and develop talent. The poor individual performances of Arabs, so obvious at the Olympics, exist also in the innovative and creative realms even if they are not as obvious.
It is telling that there are no role models in the Arab world. Bed-time stories still summon personalities belonging to centuries gone by. Disgruntlement with the present and lack of trust in a better future force people to remain stuck in the perceived glories of the past. Dreams take people centuries backward rather than carrying them into the future. The personalities celebrated in popular culture are mainly historical war heroes, invoking memories of a "golden era" with little or no actual relevance to the present. They do not provide incentives for excellence in sport or the arts.
Only political leaders are allowed to compete with glorified historical figures. The majority of them, however, does not inspire excellence or innovation or the belief that hard work yields success. Nor do these leaders invest in the conditions necessary for nurturing the talent of their populations. State resources are mainly channelled toward erecting security structures that protect their regimes. In some Arab countries, the sum of money spent on arms, mainly used to suppress domestic discontent, is far greater than the money spent on education, health and, of course, sport.
Under such regimes, there has been no or little accountability for public officials, who are hardly questioned for mismanagement or failure to deliver results. This comfort has encouraged negligence and relieved public institutions from the pressure of setting and meeting measurable targets.
The Arab world has failed to realise its potential because of a dearth of good governance that invests in true development. It is true that some countries have done better than others in economic growth and political reform. But the overall picture reveals a dramatic failure in relation to what could have been achieved. One can draft an endless list of reasons that can explain the lack of progress in the Arab world. But all these are rooted in the absence of democratic structures that maximise human and material resources. Officials who are not accountable do not feel the pressure to achieve.
The dismal performance of Arab countries in the Olympics is a reflection of a broader developmental failure and a direct result of the absence of accountability. Just as leaders who launched and lost unnecessary wars and officials who squandered public funds and mismanaged public institutions have gone unpunished or even questioned, heads of the Olympic committees responsible for the 2008 Olympics will face no pressure even to explain their failures. They will soon return to their normal approach to business and produce similar dismal failures in the future.
Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs