By Rami G. Khouri, www.Middle-East-Online.com
The Arab World is fast becoming two Worlds due to oil wealth and other factors largely effected by that distinction.
As oil prices and income to some Arab producers continue to rise, we can witness sharper polarization between the wealthy energy-producing, small population states of the Gulf, and the more populous, energy-importing Arab countries all around it in the Levant region, the Nile Valley, and farther west into North Africa. Any person who travels to such places as Dubai, Doha, Bahrain, Amman, Cairo, Casablanca, and Beirut moves between two very different worlds that are united by investment and labor flows, but are being pushed farther apart in most other spheres of life.
A set of polarizations defining the Arab world today lie along fault lines largely drawn by way of income levels, but also comprising other criteria. The Arab world is steadily disaggregating into two very different sub-worlds, characterized by the following polarizations:
1. Wealth vs. poverty: The continued rise in oil and gas prices has seen the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) amass enormous sums of cash income — trillions of dollars in the past decade — which they cannot spend, and may increasingly have trouble investing safely. Per capita real incomes and real purchasing power in the rest of the Arab world remain flat and, in some cases, are even in decline.
2. 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, education — even entire new cities 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 that cater primarily to the rich.
Most of the rest of the Arab world finds itself in a situation where macroeconomic growth often registers impressive levels of five to seven percent, yet the fruits of this growth rarely filter down beyond a small elite segment of the population. The vast majority of citizens continues to see family budgets squeezed, as government budgets are pared down and inflation rises steadily.
Demonstrations protesting retail prices and the availability of basic foodstuffs and services are on the rise again throughout the Arab world outside the Gulf.
3. 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 varying degrees of social fragmentation and national fraying. Countries like Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Algeria already experience varying degrees of national dysfunction.
In some cases, these countries find themselves ruled by multiple authorities and armed forces that coexist uneasily.
4. Pluralism vs. insularity: One of the striking aspects of the GCC states — check out any airport, shopping mall, restaurant, or other prevalent form of public space — is the very rich variety of nationalities that live and work there. Most of the 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 parts of the rest of the Arab world is in the opposite direction, towards slow separation of diverse populations that traditionally lived together peacefully. In the most extreme cases, ethnic cleansing is practiced.
Vibrant cosmopolitan quarters with a variety of faiths, ethnicities, and nationalities are now restricted to just a few pockets of the Arab world.
5. 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. 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 that part of the Arab world where the state is unable to provide the basic security that citizens expect from it.
6. The rule of law vs. lawlessness: One level below the dichotomy of order vs. disorder is the deeper fact that 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, commissions, and generous tips to complete basic public sector transactions where these are available; and, growing delinquency in the states provision of basic services — security, water, education, telephones, and health care — to all its citizens.
7. Religiosity vs. secularism: Some quarters 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 in their status as citizens of a state.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.