By M Alam Brohi
April 30, 2019
Recently President Donald Trump, pandering to the influential Jewish lobby and ultra conservatives, has made diplomatic moves which constitute provocative snubs to the Arab countries and complete denigration of the Palestinian issue and the UN resolutions on occupation of Arab lands. His moves have evoked prototype criticism from the Muslim countries and some European Union states which Mr. Trump has taken in his usual stride.
His moves began from shifting the US Embassy to Jerusalem to merging the American Consulate in Jerusalem with the US Embassy, scaling up the American support to the illegal Jewish settlements to the highest level ever, and, the most provocative of all, recognizing Israel’s sovereignty on Golan Heights. His decisions would aggravate the critical security situation in that troubled region. He confronted his Arab with a critical situation at a time when they are desperately scrambling to overcome their security and economic vulnerabilities.
President Donald Trump’s latest announcement recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights caused a shockwave in the Arab world. The decision did not evoke the support of any American foreign policy expert. Only the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu gleefully admired it. His chorus was joined by Mr. Trump’s close advisors like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo and a handful pro-Israel Republican Senators. The Arab countries met in a summit of the 22-nation Arab League in Tunisia on 31st March to consider, inter alia, the latest move of the US leader, and register their protest over his proclamation. The Final Communiqué issued at the end of the session, filled with usual clichés, repeated the well beaten stand of the Arab countries on Palestine and the occupied Arab lands. Unfortunately, the Arab countries, strategically and economically vulnerable due to prolonged civil wars and mutual acrimony, have lost their influence on the global political and strategic chessboard.
The Arab Spring while weakening the anti-Israel countries like Iraq, Syria and Libya, has confirmed the position of Israel as the dominant power in the Middle East. The Mossad, the premier intelligence agency of Israel, reported in 2017 that the country faced no threat of conventional war and there was only low probability of war in the coming years with the non-state actors citing Hezbollah, ISIS and remnants of Al-Qaeda. The credibility of the report could not be disputed. As the Middle East sinks deeper in turmoil with Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen grappling with civil wars, Israel feels strategically secure and economically strong.
The Arab world is confronted with serious economic situation because of wrong policies or, as put it by some economists, rentierism. The economy of the Gulf countries is oil and gas based. These states did not develop their economy horizontally setting up industries and promoting private sector or public-private partnership. Some countries like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia have been living on dole-outs from affluent brothers. They were stretching well beyond their means providing lavish subsidies to their citizens.
The Arab Spring frightened the Kings and Emirs to the hilt. They rushed to buy the loyalty of their public. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia came out with a whopping package of $130 billion promising higher salaries and more housing assistance for Saudi citizens. The other Gulf governments did not lag behind. In February 2011, the Kuwaiti Emir gave every citizen 1000 Kuwaiti Dinars roughly equivalent to $3500 and free staple food for over one year. The Omani Sultan funded 30,000 more jobs and 40% more University scholarships. These Gulf countries arranged an aid package of $5 billion for Jordan and $12billion for Egypt.
These subsidies and aid packages were possible when the oil was selling at $140 per barrel from 2008 onwards. The Arab leaders were not ready for the shock caused by the falling prices of oil. In 2014, the price fell to $100 a barrel, reaching the lowest ever of $30 a barrel in 2016 before rebounding to around $70 a barrel where it stays today. This caused oil producing Arab countries heavy budget deficits. The aid granting countries of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait found it impossible to plug the huge budget deficits without curtailing their spending habits, or sanctioning aid packages for the resource strapped countries across the Middle East.
The Arab leaders need to go for gradual, serious and participatory political processes and structural economic reforms that their people can believe in. The Middle Eastern citizens, addicted to subsidies as they are, will accept only short-term sacrifices for long-term changes. The women workforce in the Middle East is the lowest in the world – only 32% as compared to a world average of 58% according to a World Bank report.
The governments should exploit technology to raise productivity and gear their efforts to knowledge-based economy, rapidly diversifying their sources of revenue away from oil. They could do this by empowering private sector and encouraging public-private partnerships. The imperative need is to curb the elitism and promote rule of law and a culture of equality among all citizens, ending legal discrimination against women and minorities and minority sectarian groups.
The governments cannot remain the primary employers. This is more so in the Middle East where the oil producing countries employee imported workforce for managerial and menial jobs. The creation of proper legal and financial environments for private sector small and medium-sized enterprises will help companies expand and compensate for public sector jobs. The governments need to concentrate on the eradication of corruption from the society. Without proper monitoring bodies, corruption has become an endemic problem in the Middle East. The ranking of several Middle Eastern countries on Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index has considerably declined.
The difficult economic and political situations, civil wars and squandering of funds in generous dole-outs to violent opposition militias and sectarian militants, and the steep fall in the prices of oil has beset the Arab countries with a critical situation and reduced their ability to put up any worthwhile resistance to the unjust US policies in their region.
The author was a member of the Foreign Service of Pakistan and he has authored two books