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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Look inward for solutions to Arab problems, former leaders say

Countries need to revive Arab intellectualism and utilise potential of youth, Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate hears

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi addresses a youth conference in Sharm El Sheikh on November 5, 2018. MENA via AP
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi addresses a youth conference in Sharm El Sheikh on November 5, 2018. MENA via AP

Arab countries must begin the reconstruction of their societies and tap into the growing youth population if they are to overcome challenges facing the region and counter foreign interference in internal affairs, say former Arab ministers.

The speakers at the 5th annual Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate said the willingness of Arab leaders to look westward for solutions continued to contribute to widespread violence and the inability of their countries to address their domestic problems, let alone remedy regional instability.

“If we looked in all honesty, from the Arab perspective not the foreigners' perspective, the problems of Arab should be the Arabs’ responsibility,” said Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian foreign minister.

Khaled Bahah, the former Yemeni prime minister, said a failure to address not only the problems within Middle Eastern countries but also among Arabs had allowed political and social cracks to develop, creating opportunities for non-Arab countries to interfere in the internal affairs of Arabs.

“Allowing Iran and others to influence us, is found in regional cracks. If we could cement these cracks then it would be impossible for outside forces to interfere," he said. "If we as Arabs could solve our problems we would provide foreign forces with no opportunity.”

Arab countries, despite needing to create the capacity to address their own issues, should continue to develop relationships with the West. Their downfall, said Mr Bahah, is when the gap widens between Arab countries' capacity to overcome their challenges and the ability of foreign actors to willingly provide stability in the face of change.

“As a result we find that there is a security vacuum in the Arab world, and the Turkish, Iranian and Israeli influence in our affairs and their interference in every single issue. It’s gotten to the point where they are the most important players in our own affairs,” said Mr Bahah.

The solution, according to former Libyan prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, is found in empowering Arabs and tapping into what has often been seen as a crippling demographic drawback in the region: the growing youth bulge.

The Arab uprisings in 2011 "was an alarm bell, because it led to more violence and we can’t have that, especially in the light of our knowing that we can do it [ensure stability], especially with the young people,” said Mr Jibril.

He said the youth, who have grown increasingly disenfranchised, need to be given an opportunity to buy in to their respective governments' plans for their future.

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Despite revolutions in the Middle East being an earnest representation of the disenfranchisement of many Arabs, as was the case in several countries in 2011, the fear lies in that doing so in the current unstable environment allows dissident political and religious groups to hijack those movements to pursue their ulterior motives, Mr Jibril said.

That responsibility of change cannot come without the education of the youth and requires the reconstruction of an “Arab intellectualism” matched with a deeper understanding of religion capable of allowing youth to reject extremist, and at times violent, interpretations of religion.

“Building a new Arab mind has become the responsibility of every Arab, not a secondary thought. It is the role of every measure of society to contribute to this development ... It’s about providing agency to Arabs in every segment of society,” he said.

On rebuilding nations that have been divided by civil war, such as Syria and Yemen, Mr Bahah decried the practice of unifying states as a solution to conflicts without regard to the underlying concerns.

Mr Bahah warned that doing so would be building a state on an uneasy base, which was likely to institutionalise the grievances from both sides without reconciliation.

“The big problem, in transition, is building a nation or sustaining peace to stop a problem, to stop a crisis. We seldom build a country to build a country, we build to stop wars or a crisis, and this applies to all the other countries in difficulty,” Mr Bahah said.

When decision-makers begin the process of nation-building or unification of countries in Middle East, he said, the founding principles of that nation should be geared to sustain long-term peace and not as a remedy to the current conflict.

Many Arab countries development track is no different than that of Singapore’s in the 1980s and that lessons learnt from their development model should be implemented accordingly.

“Today in the region we are in the same situation, but we have a lack of political understanding of this environment, the lack of ability to change is leading to violence, the resistance to change is making us fail to understand these developments and that leads to more violence,” Mr Bahah said.

He said Singapore had implemented a willingness to change and act accordingly to utilise its resources. In recognising their issues and making use of their limited resources, they were able to create a country and build from the ground up a formidable and stable economic force bringing prosperity to its people.

The model has often been used by developing countries and is one that he said could be reinterpreted to help pull several Arab countries out of violence and into normality.