The Arab Summit which convened in Jordan on Wednesday revealed the two worlds of regional and domestic threats that Arab leaders have been trying to navigate with little success.
The summit’s focus on regional issues affirmed heartfelt commitments to peace and the international rule of law on the big political issues that matter to most Arabs – Palestine, Syria, Jerusalem, the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), refugees, civil wars, and foreign interference.
Yet these positions seemed only to entrench the frustrations citizens across the region have with their leaders’ inability to go beyond rhetorical affirmations of Arab rights, and to actually achieve lasting peace.
On the other hand, most Arab citizens and foreign observers will be unimpressed by the Arab leaders’ apparent blindness to the real dynamics that threaten the region: deteriorating domestic socioeconomic and political conditions that have generated massive region-wide cleavages in people’s living conditions and sectarian identities, which in turn drive conflicts within states and across borders.
Inability to translate words into action
The leaders’ sincere commitments to Palestinian statehood and a peaceful resolution of wars in Syria and elsewhere in the region reflected their obvious appreciation of how bothered most citizens are by various regional conflicts. Yet governments have been unable to make any progress on any of the big issues that face the region, whether domestic or regional.
The Arab world’s reaffirmed “strategic option” of a fair, negotiated peace with Israel on the basis of a two-state solution was impressive for both its earnestness and consistency over the past 15 years, since the Arab Peace Plan was launched at the 2002 summit.
Yet most Arab citizens ask in despair why their leaders have never been able to muster the will or the means to translate these formidable words into action. This is especially true owing to two new troubling trends.
First, Israel and the United States persist in dealing with the status of Palestine and Jerusalem as their private concern, rather than an issue governed by international law and the equal rights of Arabs and Israelis alike.
Recent interactions between the Trump administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have included bilateral discussions on the one- or two-state solution, the status of Jerusalem, the ongoing pace of Israeli colonisation of occupied Arab lands, and other related issues, without any Arab inputs.
The hard political and military realities on the ground – whether American involvement in Palestine or Russian-Iranian involvement in Syria – seem to relegate Arab leaders’ position and statements mostly to the realm of rhetoric.
Second, the reaffirmed pan-Arab consensus on a two-state solution before any Arab “normalisation” of relations with Israel seems to be offset by some Arab countries’ willingness to explore interactions with Israel today, in commercial, intelligence-sharing, military training, and other fields.
This would dovetail with the US-Israeli desire to explore “outside-in” peace-making, where initial Israeli-Arab normalisations could then lead to Israeli-Palestinian and wider Israeli-Arab peace agreements. The summit declaration would seem to abort this possibility, but like all other summit intentions there is little evidence that the Arab world has found the key to translating these words into action.
A similar dichotomy pertains to Arab views of Iran. The summit clearly warned against foreign intervention in domestic Arab affairs, but some Arab leaders have also initiated exploratory contacts with Iran to defuse this major schism in the region that piles sectarian tensions on top of political, economic, and national feuds.
Arab leaders’ credibility is stretched here because many of them intervene at will in the domestic affairs of other Arab countries, often driving wars and political confrontations in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, Libya, and Iraq.
Such imprecision and contradiction in Arab rhetoric-and-action balances on regional issues are not new, yet they are increasingly troubling to hundreds of millions of citizens who feel threatened by a kaleidoscope of new concerns that affect their daily lives; these include new domestic tensions, sectarian clashes, regional wars, terror threats, economic slowdowns, budget contractions, environmental stresses, and expanding foreign military interventions across the region.
Domestic socio-economic deterioration
This is another major issue in the Middle East that the Arab summit seemed largely to ignore. Almost all Arab countries’ domestic socio-economic and environmental conditions have deteriorated steadily in the past quarter-century, following decades of robust national development. The fast-growing Arab population – now around 400 million people – cannot be sustained at comfortable living standards by the existing economic systems, even in the energy-rich states.
The past decade of expanding wars and fracturing states seems to mark a historical moment of reckoning for the entire developmental thrust of the Arab region.
Given the erratic statistics in this region, it would be fair to assume that around 100 million Arabs live in serious poverty, and another 100 million balance precariously at the edge of poverty. Housing conditions, fresh water provision, subsidised food and fuel, and basic education and health services have stagnated or declined for large segments of populations in the non-energy-producing middle- and lower-income Arab states that make up nearly 80 percent of the Arab population.
The latest pan-Arab survey by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies found that nearly four of every five Arab citizens (78 percent) say they live in “hardship” or in “need”; they can barely meet their monthly basic household needs and have little or no savings as a cushion for emergencies (pdf).
Worse still, nearly half of all mid-secondary and mid-primary school students in the Arab world do not meet basic literacy standards, ie, they cannot really read, write or do simple maths.
Many of these students will drop out of school, meaning that as many as 25 million young Arabs who should be in school will not be in school in the coming years, due to poor schooling, wars, and their family’s economic priorities.
An expanding pool of between 100 and 200 million Arab citizens will grow increasingly miserable, vulnerable, and desperate in the years ahead, unable to find work or live a normal life.
They will exacerbate the current internal threats in many Arab countries that generate extremist, separatist, and terrorist movements, and that are easy fodder for manipulation by local or foreign extremist movements.
The latest Arab summit in Jordan, like the past dozen such gatherings, seems to have ignored these critical domestic governance and human development deficiencies that have already started to undermine the unity and stability of at least half a dozen Arab countries.
Perhaps the next summit could acknowledge that domestic stresses and human deficiencies are the foundation on which regional tensions grow, and finally take measures to address the real threats that our region faces.
Rami G Khouri is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at Harvard University Kennedy School.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.