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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

The only option now is to adapt or perish

Jamal Al Suwaidi reflects on a period of momentous change and considers the challenges facing the Arab world

We live in a time of great change, a moment when our lives, our culture and collective futures are being challenged like never before. AFP
We live in a time of great change, a moment when our lives, our culture and collective futures are being challenged like never before. AFP

It is a universal fact that change constitutes the natural order of life. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “there is nothing permanent except change”.

Interestingly, current data suggest that the next stage of change will exceed all expectations.

At the political level, the world is departing from many of the beliefs that have been taken for granted for decades. This is especially evident in terms of balance of power, mechanisms of conflict, tools of warfare, systems of governance, roles of societies, as well as how states view, define and defend their interests. In fact, the very existence of some countries is even under threat. The concepts of wealth, resources and production tools are also changing. At the cultural level, values, customs and belief systems are undergoing radical transformation. All aspects of our lives are changing because of globalisation and the fact that the world has become a global village.

As for information and communications, everyone can see the revolution at work, which has created virtual parallel universes that are hard to grasp, control or define. It has also enhanced communication between people from different cultures, civilisations, sects and religions. It is a revolution that has not yet reached its full potential. This is an issue that I discussed in my book From Tribe to Facebook: The Transformational Role of Social Networks, published in 2013. At the same time, volcanoes of knowledge have erupted before mankind due to information technology. This has brought about significant implications at the political, cultural, and social levels. The education sector has also witnessed radical transformations in terms of curricula, tools and goals.

At the intellectual level, there are new theories about politics, economics and sociology that refute, reconsider or revise some aspects of the world’s long-established theories, thoughts and ideologies. At the demographic level, there has been a steady rise in the rate of population growth across the globe, especially with the availability of healthcare services that increase life expectancy. It took 123 years for the world’s population to double from one to two billion, while it took just 11 years for the population to increase from five to six billion. It is predicted that the world’s population will reach more than nine billion by 2050.

The changes that mankind has recently witnessed break all rules, creating an earthquake with shockwaves reverberating across all fields in a way that is increasingly difficult to follow or understand. They are comprehensive changes that nothing or no one will be immune from.

This transformation has not come out of the blue. There are several causes.

First is the explosion of knowledge, particularly at the technological level. The second cause is the unleashing of unrestricted freedom of thought in both experimental and human sciences. The constraints of religion, myths and legends impeded science for centuries, until thought was liberated in the European Renaissance. Third is the intensity of competition in the international arena for influence, prestige and power. This has contributed to the permanent state of innovation, creativity and change. This in turn has divided the world into two parties: one which engages in and contributes to change, while the other is against it. The fourth cause is that modern science is no longer confined to a limited number of countries. Fifth is the serious imbalance in the relationship between resources and demand, which is expected to increase in the upcoming period. This will mean science must be utilised to overcome this deficit. This has paved the way for many significant inventions, particularly genetic engineering in the fields of agriculture and livestock production. The sixth cause is the vast surge in future science. The seventh is that globalisation has fuelled interaction between people. The final cause is the growing threats and risks emanating from several sources in the world. The human intellect is compelled to find new formulas, theories and visions to control these threats and mitigate these risks.

Change aims to improve the standard of living on earth and address the planet’s problems. However, serious challenges could arise, such as mechanisation. Robots will eventually compete against humans in the labour market, which will lead to widespread unemployment followed by social and political unrest. What will happen to these unemployed people? How will they behave after losing their jobs? How will governments find uses for them and reduce the threats they may pose to peace, cohesion and security?

Furthermore, scientific advancements have given rise to several ethical and human issues that require careful approaches so that science is not on a collision course with religion, ethics, or humanity. The challenge that we face in the Arab world is not just our position on the map of change in the world, but rather our ability to offer satisfactory answers to the social, human, religious and ethical issues evoked by this change.

Radical change has become an existential issue. Arab and Muslim countries must deal with change within thoughtful and effective institutional frameworks. This can be achieved by establishing organisations, bodies or even ministries to address change by studying, researching and developing strategic plans that combine vision, expertise and competencies from different areas.

My next few pieces for this newspaper will consider the change that the world is witnessing now and will do in the future. More importantly, they will also focus on how this change will affect the Arab world, as well as our position towards and role within this change. Moreover, these articles aim to motivate all institutions, authorities and bodies to think about and formulate scenarios for this future. Reflecting on the future and attempting to predict and define its outlines are no longer intellectual luxuries. Instead, they have become matters of life or death.

Sigmund Freud, the renowned Austrian psychiatrist, said that people who resist change and do not participate in changing the world or themselves “were all born like this, lived like this, and will die like this”. Those who do not contribute toward change cannot avoid its influences. The only options are to either adapt or perish.

Dr Jamal Al Suwaidi is the director general of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research

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