I have a very good friend I have known for 10 years, a well-educated Arab American working for a reputable multinational company in Dubai.
Our conversations usually touch on various topics. We start with the unbearable weather during the summer months, move on to his dog's infatuation with watching TV, and range all the way to the latest theories on quantum physics.
About once a month a regular topic pops up: the latest conspiracy theory about schemes being plotted against the Middle East. At the beginning I usually laugh off what he has to say. Then I progress to debating with him, trying to disprove the details. Often the conversation gets heated. By the end of the chat, I am usually left with nothing positive - except admiration for the creativity and wild imagination that hatches these stories.
If you have grown up in this region, you know that conspiracy theories are regular visitors to a lot of conversations. Somehow, we have managed to create a range of conspiracies to blame for every misery that strikes us.
The wildest one ever was a story that spread virally after the attacks of September 11, 2001: a message had been sent to all Jewish people working at the World Trade Center in New York, this claim asserted, warning them to avoid entering the twin towers on the day of the attack. The objective of this story was to "prove" that the attacks had been orchestrated by the US and Israel, to pave the way for waging war on countries in this region.
Another one that I found amusing emerged a couple of years back. This rumour accused Israel of contaminating drinking water with chemicals that would make Palestinian men and women infertile. With the Palestinian Territories still on the UN's top-30 list of the most fertile countries on Earth, that one did not make much sense.
A more recent one involved elaborate maps of divided regions and countries in the Middle East. These maps were said to have originated in the US administration, and "proved" that all the revolutions that had happened and still are happening across the region were ignited and master-planned by the United States. The purpose was to break Middle Eastern countries into smaller states ruled by multiple parties and factions.
Conspiracy-theory enthusiasts can usually find a trail of "evidence" to support stories such as these. This "proof" usually takes the form of scans of documents published on certain websites, pictures of messages received on mobile phones and amateur videos on YouTube. Seriously?
I am not so naive as to believe that nefarious plots don't exist. Conspiracies happen, and sometimes they are exposed. They happen in politics, at work and even in personal relationships.
But what I can't comprehend is our rush to put blame on everything and everyone except ourselves. Why do we embrace invented stories to avoid our personal responsibility for the plights of our region?
If I were to compose a list of the things that we do in this region that stand in the way of our progress, and that are of our own making, I would have a book, a sequel and perhaps a third volume.
Shall we start with our overwhelming urge to belong to a certain faction? The intensity with which we label ourselves as belonging to one group versus another? The way that despite our shared language and shared majority religion, we Arabs are still unable to mix and embrace one another? The measures that we use to undermine opposing opinions? The illiteracy rates that burden rural areas in certain countries in the Middle East? The way that we still oppress women through denying them certain civil rights? The physical, verbal and emotional abuse against these same women?
There are no conspiracies behind unpleasant facts such as these. Some of these problems are simply ingrained in our societies and our regional DNA; they are internal to us.
So perhaps before we start looking at what's coming in from abroad, we ought to take a closer look at what's happening in our own backyard. Now, can someone please share with me a conspiracy theory about that?
Rana Askoul is a Dubai-based writer and leadership development consultant with a focus on Middle East issues