An Arab Renaissance against all odds?

Pan-Arabism, which crystallised during the 50’s and 60’s of the last century as a quasi secular socialist movement is, by all accounts, dead. The Arab Intelligentsia has grieved and mourned for the last four decades the premature death of a promising progressive movement. Arab unity movements, from the ocean to the ocean, have been spiralling downwards towards oblivion.

Far from taking any steps towards institutionalized political unity, the Arabs of today appear incapable of reaching any agreement in response to any of the serious and dangerous situations facing the Arabs collectively. Any follower of mediatised intra-Arab political or social debates would note the absurd pattern where the majority of debates amongst Arab representatives turn into un-intelligible disputes, worthy only of sighs of frustration and disbelief.

The divergence in interests combined with an inability to communicate has rendered the thought of mere collaboration between Arabs naïve and utopian.

The impotence of the Arabs in Palestine, Iraq, Sudan and now Yemen has saddened and frustrated generations, leading them either to utmost indifference or, more seriously, to religious fanaticism.

Whilst we are aware that the depressed tone of this article so far would appeal to many of our cynical readers, our actual purpose is to show that the spirit of Arab Renaissance still exists and is capable of making a major comeback.

The first Arab Renaissance started in the second half of the Nineteenth century as a corollary to the cultural and educational awareness raised after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the contact with the western world. A significant Arab movement led by Sherif Hussein of Mecca grew under the shadow of the First World War. It did not however survive the Ottoman Empire and disappeared with the British and French division and dominance of the Arab world. A more mature Renaissance movement saw the light in the 1950’s focusing on the struggle against the establishment of Israel and the support of national independent movements growing in the “post colonial” countries.

The death of Jamal Abdul Nasser followed by the Camp David accord in 1978 ended a movement which could not survive with Egypt out of the equation. The military resistance to the Israeli invasion in Lebanon in the summer of 1982 followed by the First and Second Palestinian Intifada in 1987 and 2000 is considered by certain authors as the Third Arab Renaissance movement.

According to Issam Noman, a Lebanese politician and thinker, the Third Renaissance has progressed to a new civilized project, in line with the globalisation movement of the 21st Century. A project, which according to Noman, should be based on“mutual exchange, the removal of constraints and borders amongst countries, people and cultures in response to the telecommunication and technological revolution”.

And it is here that we contend that a spirit of Arab unity persists and grows in the region today, despite all political realities and agendas that push doggedly in the opposite direction. First and foremost, a pan-Arab mentality is manifesting itself in the world of business. We are not talking here of any significant pan-Arab economic initiatives at the government level. With the exception of the good work being done at the level of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), efforts at economic coordination amongst Arab governments are pretty much dead in the water.

Still, Arab businessmen and companies are approaching the Arab world as one market. This comes not as the result of some rosy ideological attachments, but from a pure sense of business opportunities. Start–ups are springing up across the Arab world, starting in one Arab country and then moving swiftly to establish a presence in other Arab countries.

This trend is most visible in businesses that are grounded in the knowledge economy. Internet and new media enterprises must approach the Arab market as one, as it speaks one language. The success of enterprises like Zawya.com, Yamli.com, and Koora.com speaks volumes about the need to adopt a holistic approach to conducting business in Arabia.

Samih Toukan, co-founder of Maktoob.com, said at the recent ArabNet conference (http://www.arabnet.me/) in Beirut: “Investors look at Arab world as a whole…as one market.” In fact, nothing embodies the point of this article as the vibrancy and exuberance that was manifested at ArabNet. Speakers talked with passion about the need to foster and support the growing digital and entrepreneurial spirit in the Arab world. Young innovators from Jordan, Lebanon and many other Arab countries presented their projects to various investors who were focused on the Arab world as one unit.

Contrast this enthusiasm with that surrounding the annual Arab Summit that was held at the end of March in Sert, Libya. The level of popular interest was possibly at an all time low. Arabs, including their leaders, fully appreciate that a pan-Arab approach to regional challenges is at best futile.

However, there continues to be a strong Arab connection at the human level that pierces through this collective cynicism towards a unified political approach. For despite all the intelligentsia’s newfound realism that confines any form of Arab unity to obscurity, no one in his right mind would or could deny that basic, emotional link that still binds one Arab to another. It is that link that transcends the daily conflict that marks Arab politics.

This article aims to start a conversation. It is not about adopting slogans for or against Arab unity. It is about rational debate. Is the growing sense of one Arab market, driven by innovators and businessmen, a precursor to a grass roots movement towards the adoption of a truly integrated Arab economy? Is such a development worthy of our focus and effort? Could the human bond between Arabs be a driving force for unified Arab effort towards change?

Decades of failure will naturally lead many to respond negatively to these questions. But this is ultimately a knee jerk reaction that is, in and of itself, yet another manifestation of our decline.

We should seek positive conclusions from the encouraging realities on the ground. Whether it’s in the emerging success of Arab businesses, or in the engagement of the sense of Arab civil society to address our common regional challenges, there lies somewhere, potentially, the seeds of reform.

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One Comment

  1. ramy
    Posted May 16, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    the notion of arabism, arabity or even arab identity is just an invented concept, a pure myth rather than a hard, solid reality which bases itself on facts and history. do not be fooled, the only way that investors approach middle-eastern markets as one is for the same reason they would approach the south-east Asian markets the same way (at least before they became mature: for practical reasons before anything else, and to be also able to cut a little bit on costs since they would use one studied country as a template and then apply the model to the other countries surrounding it (we can see this particularly in the GCC area.
    Ppl from the middle-east, get over this ridiculous notion of pan-arabism or of common identity among the so-called “arab countries” and start focusing on more important issues such as getting a life perhaps?

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