Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
April 16, 2008 - 6:05pm


As oil income to Arab producers continues to rise, we are witnessing sharper polarization between the wealthy, energy-producing states of the Gulf with their small populations on the one hand, and the more populous, energy-importing Arab countries in the Levant, the Nile Valley, and North Africa on the other. Any person who travels to such places as Dubai, Doha, Bahrain, Amman, Cairo, Casablanca and Beirut moves between two very different worlds united by investment and labor flows but that are being pushed further apart in most other spheres of life.

The polarization that defines the Arab world today revolves is defined by fault lines determined by disparate income levels, but also other criteria. The Arab world is steadily disaggregating into two very different sub-worlds, characterized by the following polarizations:

First, wealth vs. poverty: The continued rise in oil and gas prices gas-prices-rise-to-new-national-record Apr-7-2008 has seen the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council Oil-Producers-Buying-Spree (GCC) amass enormous sums of cash income, which they cannot spend and may increasingly have trouble investing safely. Meanwhile, per capita real income and real purchasing power elsewhere the Arab world remain flat or even decline.

Second, growth vs. stagnation: Wealth in the hands of the public and private sectors in the GCC has translated into increasingly ambitious projects in real estate, entertainment, public works, and education. Entire new cities are being conceived and designed from scratch. Some of these novel lifestyle ventures and real estate developments are now being exported to other countries in the form of gated communities and massive shopping complexes catering primarily to the rich.

Most of the rest of the Arab world finds itself in a situation where macroeconomic growth is often an impressive 5-7 percent, but where the fruits of growth rarely filter down beyond a small elite. The vast majority of citizens continue to see family budgets squeezed as government budgets are pared down and inflation steadily rises. Demonstrations over retail prices and the availability of basic foodstuffs and services are on the rise again throughout Arab countries located outside the Gulf.

Third, national cohesion vs. fragmentation: Security and material development are fostering a growing sense of national identity and social cohesion in the GCC states, while the rest of the Arab world suffers from social fragmentation and national fraying. Countries like Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Algeria are experiencing varying degrees of national dysfunction. In some cases, countries find themselves ruled by multiple authorities and armed forces that coexist uneasily.

Fourth, pluralism vs. insularity: One of the striking aspects of the GCC states - check out any airport, shopping mall or restaurant, the prevalent forms of public space - is the very rich variety of nationalities that live and work there. Most individuals do not mix with each other beyond commercial or service encounters, making a sense of community elusive; yet the sheer variety of nationalities is impressive. The trend in many other parts of the Arab world is in the opposite direction: toward slow separation of diverse populations that traditionally lived together peacefully. In the most extreme cases, ethnic cleansing is practiced. Vibrant cosmopolitanism embracing a variety of faiths, ethnicities and nationalities is now restricted to just a few pockets of the Arab world.

Fifth, order vs. disorder: Wealth and developmental strategies have seen the Gulf countries place a high premium on order and security, with only occasional acts of violence visible. In many other parts of the Arab world, violence is an increasingly common norm, intermittently expressing itself in recurring warfare. Militias, private armies, and commercial security firms are among the fastest growing sectors in the Arab world, where the state is unable to provide the basic security that citizens expect from it.

Sixth, the rule of law vs. lawlessness: Some Arab societies are governed by the rule of law, while others are sliding into greater lawlessness. This transcends security and warfare, and is reflected in two common phenomena: ordinary citizens' growing need to pay bribes and commissions to complete basic public-sector transactions where available; and, growing delinquency in states' provision of basic services - security, water, education, telephones, and healthcare - to its citizens.

And seventh, religiosity vs. secularism: Some parts of the Arab world that enjoy material wellbeing and basic security tend to become more secular; other large segments of the Arab population increasingly turn to religion for the sense of hope and dignity that they do not receive from their status as citizens of a state.


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