The New Global Arabism

By PARAG KHANNA

Some American commentators bend over backwards to portray Arab societies as backwards or feeble. Conservatives argue that it was necessary to invade Iraq because repressive regimes and Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East "only understand the language of force." Even liberals who oppose military interventions point to the Arab Human Development Report, which highlights the humiliating gaps between the West and the Arab world in terms of the number of publications translated, internet penetration, Nobel Prize winners, and other hallmarks of wealthy societies. The Arab world, in short, is under-globalized and seems all but cut off from the global currents of modernity.

If the Arab world is so self-contained and governed by such simplistic logic, however, then why has the West been so utterly incapable of dealing productively with it? The reason has as much to do with the condescending and specious logic outlined above as with any of the admittedly myriad flaws in Arab governance. First, a lesson in geography and geology. The Arab world forever lies at the crossroads of Western, Eastern and African civilizations. It has been pivotal to most great historical developments and events from the Silk Road to the Crusades to World War II. For most of the twentieth century, and for the foreseeable future, the concentration of the world's oil supply in Arab hands puts them very much in control of the fuel of the global economy itself. There is no naivete in the Arab world about its centrality in the future success or failure of globalization. It will not be -- as all too many commentators claim -- "left behind." At all levels of international politics, economics and culture, the Arab world is not merely on the receiving end of globalization's forces, like third world countries blatantly exploited by multinational corporations. Rather, it is learning how to use and manipulate globalization to its own advantage. From Egyptian Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb to 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, Islamic fundamentalists have studied in the West and developed their animating visions in part as a response to these cross-cultural encounters. They have seen their mission as global, not local. Today, Arab television networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have also learned from Western journalist methods and turned their lenses outward, becoming globally competitive -- in Arabic and soon in English -- with their challenging interpretations of global events. Anyone can play in globalization's marketplace of ideas, and the Western account is no longer automatically privileged. The pan-Arabism of a half-century ago had all the elements of self-serving dictatorial posturing of leaders too nervous to actually cede sovereignty to a greater Arab essence. The new Arabism requires no false center like the Arab League, nor a Nasserite socialist hero. Whereas the Arab world is widely considered fiercely nationalistic, even tribal, particularly in comparison with the postmodern European Union, a closer look suggests that due to its unique cultural circumstances, it potentially sets the pace in transcending the state system. Unlike the twenty-five members of the EU, the over twenty Arab nations already share a common language and religion, neither of which they need to debate in months of supranational constitutional wrangling. The combination of mass media and shared geopolitical grievances, alongside the painful awareness of the arbitrariness of the Western-imposed borders, are transforming the Arab political landscape into one of remarkably consistent public opinion in suspicion of American foreign policy, views on the role of religion in public life, and the diminished legitimacy of unelected rulers. Like the sense of European-ness, this sense of Arabism is rapidly accelerating among the electronically and professionally globalizing younger generation in the Arab world. Student exchanges, activist conferences, print media and internet blogs are contributing to a broad, concerted, and bottom-up push for political change, a trend not seen with any such consistency anywhere else in the world. In other words, whereas political Islam is in fact largely a national-level phenomenon, political Arabism exists strongly in the Arab consciousness. The Arab world is itself so vast -- stretching from Morocco to the Persian Gulf -- that its internal globalization is actually more revealing about globalization trends than its relations with the outside world. At the top level, countless billions in investment are flowing from Arab oil to non-oil economies, building the manufacturing and service sectors across the region; FDI/GDP ratios are rising in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. In the bottom tier, countless Arab migrants have moved from the non-oil to the booming oil economies in the Gulf and to Iraq in search of quick personal profit. Furthermore, the speed and efficiency of the Islam-consistent hawala system is a case study in transferring capital through networks rather than hierarchical institutions, one of the paradigmatic shifts globalization embodies. The very Islam which is construed as a repressive, pre-modern force has been, since its inception, one of the drivers of global commerce. ***** Though for millions of Arabs in the Middle East life carries on today as it has for centuries, a visit to Arab cities such as Cairo, Beirut and Dubai radically alters one's impression of Arabs as untouched by globalized modernity. If anything, the Arab world is a testing ground for the impact globalization forces have on economies, religion and politics. Cairo does not conform to the popular conception of a lugubrious Arab culture in which mint tea and nargeela-smoking provide sufficient disincentive for the common man to work or vote. During rush hour, Cairo has a bruising edginess, its residents so hectically in pursuit of meetings and deals that pedestrians easily out-pacing cars jammed on the Zamalek bridge. One wishes that drivers would all stop honking and heed the mizzoun's call to prayer, to seize the chance to pause and reflect, something so necessary in this frenetic age of break-neck globalization. In a society with under-developed institutions like Egypt, Islam may be the only continuous force keeping people centered and giving meaning to the plethora of choices globalization brings. Beirut, too, is a strikingly forward example of where globalization is carrying the world. As state institutions lose leverage around the world, in Lebanon they have been essentially absent for decades. As a result, it is political philanthropy -- such as that of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a political Donald Trump until his assassination last year -- which dictates status and influence. Short-term special interests and inter-connected black markets have trumped any notion of normal Lebanese politics. Like so much of Latin America and East Asia, pockets of next year's Porsches and disco music coexist with an under-class service economy -- both fueled by a wealthy global diaspora four times larger than the country's own population. Finally, Dubai has become the epitome of the 24/7 global economic city. By day it is an emerging model of technology and media clusters (such as the Internet City and Media City) driving innovation and serving regional markets, an economy diversified almost completely away from oil and into global financial center. A New York skyline now exists where just ten years ago the Arabian desert and the Persian Gulf met uninterrupted. This would never have been possible if Dubai did not lie halfway between -- and thus borrow equally from -- first world European engineering and abundant third world, South Asian labor. By night Dubai is perhaps the world's hub of the global sin industry, so embodying raw capitalism that it tests the notion that anything can indeed be bought. Russian, Arab and Chinese businessmen stridently indulge in the global meat market at clubs such as Cyclone where they would elsewhere sheepishly remain in the shadows. Dubai is so divorced from its own cultural surroundings that many Arab men go there to forget they are in a Muslim country. The increasingly confident Arab world has many dysfunctionalities which are well documented and polemicized. But it needs to be viewed not as a realm apart from globalized modernity, but very much a proving ground for it.