For the last few days, I have been writing from the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, at the Dead Sea in Jordan. This is “Davos in the Desert,” as I have dubbed it (and I am surely not the first). For the first installment of this journal, go here. For the second, go here. The third, here. And we are wrapping up today.
I’d like to share with you a couple of insights I’ve gleaned, from the best and the brightest (as I see it).
The explosion of youth in the Arab world is a big, big problem. As I think I’ve already mentioned in this journal, there are now 200 million people under 24. And the total population is only 325 million. This is a baby boom, and perhaps the emphasis is on the “boom.” These people are in dire need of some meritocracy — they are blocked by nepotism, by the tyranny of the family name, by the lack of upward mobility, of flexibility. The Arab world, for the sake of us all, needs rapid liberalization.
The idea of a partitioned Iraq is a fantasy. To think strictly in terms of “Shiite,” “Sunni,” and “Kurdish” is ignorant reductionism. Some sort of federalism is imaginable. Three states — a Western delusion.
If the U.S. left, an evil Pandora’s box would be opened up on Iraq. The worst actors would rush to fill the vacuum — and fill it they would. Plus (as I know I’ve already mentioned), if you leave too early — you may be forced to come back under even tougher circumstances.
Iran will be a big influence, a hegemon or near-hegemon, even if they don’t acquire nukes. With nukes — Nightmare City (as the first Bush might say).
For many years, I have been doubtful that other Arabs truly care about the Palestinians. The Palestinians are an excuse for Arabs in general to avoid reform and act up. And, of course, Arabs hate Israelis at least as much as they love Palestinians. But I have just about come around to the view that other Arabs do, in fact, care about the Palestinians — that the issue weighs heavily on them. Reason? Shame/honor. The Palestinian condition constitutes shame; the amelioration of that condition would bring honor, or at least less shame.
And David Pryce-Jones, among others, has long taught us that shame/honor is perpetually at work in this part of the world.
Big, big question: Would a two-state solution — an end to the “occupation” of the West Bank — truly restore honor, or mitigate shame? Or must Arabs and Palestinians have the whole enchilada, which is to say, all of Israel?
Based on my observations, discussions, and gleanings of the last few years, I believe that a majority of Palestinians would gladly embrace the two-state solution — provided the irreconcilable minority would let them.
‐For years and years, many of us have complained that Arabs and Muslims will not face up to their own problems. They prefer to deflect, blaming others for every sniffle and cough — and those others tend to be Israelis and Americans. But I’m happy to see that there is relatively little — relatively little — deflection at this WEF conference. Instead, participants are honestly grappling with the central problems, and seeking solutions to them. This makes the air pretty fresh indeed.
Take a debate staged by the Forum and televised live by Al Arabiya. The topic: “Is the Arab World Betraying Its Youth?”
The topic alone tells you that cultural changes are afoot.
Al Arabiya’s moderator talks about this aforementioned 200 million, the 60 percent of the Arab population who are under 24. They have little hope and great troubles. Unemployment is very high, and young people are delaying marriage, unable to support spouses and families. They are lining up at embassies, trying to obtain visas — emigration seems their only way out.
One participant in the debate says that, after 9/11, the West would not welcome the Arab young. So they started flocking to the Gulf. And “thank God there is a Gulf, and thank God for the prosperity of the Gulf” — it has provided Arab youth an outlet, a salvation.
The audience is stocked with young people, brought in specially for this occasion. They stand up and air their grievances, and they joyously condemn their governments and elders. I believe this is something relatively new under the Arab sun.
On the panel sits Amr Moussa, the veteran secretary-general of the Arab League — he seems Secretary-General for Life of the Arab League. You know from what I’ve written, over several years, that he is normally gruff, blustery, defiant. But the moderator is quite hard on him — and he takes it like a lamb. Remarkable.
A different panelist says that young men will endure oppression, even the type that Saddam Hussein dished out. But they need bread, and the worst poverty is unendurable. The shame of being unable to support oneself, much less a family, is unendurable.
Another panelist says, “If I were young, and without a job, without opportunity, without hope, I would either emigrate or join a terrorist group.” I hear no gasps; no one seems surprised at this.
The debate continues free-flowingly and frankly — and it is music to the ears of all those who wish for change in the Middle East. When you begin to confront your own problems, instead of blaming, deflecting, and excusing — the solutions can’t be far off, can they?
‐Speaking of all-Arab television networks, Riz Khan is here, and he’s a big personality with Al Jazeera. He tells a joke, meant to illustrate a point: Man goes to the doctor, and the doctor gives him six months to live. Man can’t pay his bill — so the doctor gives him another six months. The point: The end can seem nigh, but there is always, or usually, another chance.
‐I meet a young Jordanian, and he tells me, laughingly, “Jordan’s not a country, it’s a buffer. The English designed us to be a buffer.”
‐Among the most perplexing of questions: “What’s a Jordanian?” I know what a Frenchman is, I know what a Thai is, and I know what an Egyptian, or a Saudi, is. But I don’t know what a Jordanian is — beyond the narrow definition of, “A person who lives within the boundaries of Jordan.”
By the same token, I guess you could say, “What’s a Canadian?”
‐I meet another young Jordanian who has been to school some in the U.S. — has participated in a summer program in the Northeast. His teachers told him that the exchange program in which he has participated is “the only good thing President Bush’s State Department has ever done.”
You are shocked out of your gourd, I know.
‐This same Jordanian is soon off to the Clinton School of Public Service — Little Rock. Nice place, I hear — Nellie Forbush was from there.
‐I run into Efraim Sneh, the Israeli deputy defense minister, and the chief negotiator with the Palestinians (I believe). His father was a famous Israeli Communist (Moshe Sneh). I have met the deputy minister before, and I say, “Hello, Mr. Sneh, good to see you again.”
Some time later, I remember: He is actually “Dr. Sneh,” a gynecologist. I thought of one of my favorite movie lines of all time, uttered by Dr. Evil in one of the Austin Powers flicks. Someone has addressed him as “Mr.,” and he says, “I didn’t spend six years in evil medical school to be called ‘Mr.,’ thank you very much!”
Incidentally, for my 2002 piece on this general subject — the honorific “Dr.” and all that surrounds it — please go here.
‐Saeb Erekat is the Palestinian negotiator, and he said something absolutely charming once — this was last winter, in Davos. I related this to you at the time. He and Sneh were sitting side by side, and they are both referred to as “Dr.” Erekat said, “Efraim is a real doctor. I am a doctor of ‘blah blah blah,’” and as he said “blah blah blah,” he made a gesture that signaled words streaming from his mouth. (Erekat has a Ph.D. in Peace Studies from Bradford University.)
If anyone tells you that Saeb Erekat never said anything charming — tell him it isn’t so.
‐Let’s have a little language: A German participant in the conference, speaking in English, refers to the country we are in as “Jordania.” This brings a smile to a few lips. In fact, “Jordania” has a more royal ring than “Jordan”!
You ever hear the phrase “MENA region”? Neither had I — means the Middle East and North Africa.
The Arab participants, whose English is robustly good, tend to say “at the end of the day” a lot. Indeed, it is one of the conference’s most popular phrases (and I’m not referring to sundown — I’m referring to, “in the final analysis”).
I notice that a participant, reading from a text, says “neGLIgible.” And when I think about the word — “negligible” . . . that is a logical pronunciation, you know? English is so extremely weird. How a foreigner ever learns it or pronounces it, I’ll never know.
‐Riz Khan shares another joke: If FedEx and UPS merged, would the resultant company be known as “FedUp”?
‐On the sidewalk, a young man is arguing heatedly with an older man, using spitting, slashing, spectacular Arabic. He is a most unusual-looking young man, seeming to belong to no nationality or ethnicity. He soon turns to me and speaks in a perfect, somewhat musical English. Before parting, I say (something like), “I envy your vehement Arabic.” He smiles and says, “I’m half Irish, half Jordanian.”
A rare and wonderful combo!
‐A middle-aged man who is organizing shuttle buses is wearing a shirt — a golf-style shirt — with the word “Maine” on it. I compliment him on it, saying that Maine is one of my favorite states. He immediately — immediately — offers to give me the shirt (the next day, after taking it home and laundering it). I, of course, resist.
Talk about giving the shirt off your back . . .
‐I’m sitting next to a Lebanese journalist. We are talking about the fate of the Middle East, and the world, over the last quarter-century. She suddenly asks me a blunt question: “Why did the American government allow Khomeini to come to power?”
The source of many, many ills and sorrows, that Islamist ascension to power.
‐Leaving for the airport, to return home, I pass Mt. Nebo, where Moses is supposed to have ended up. It sort of shimmers in the early-morning haze. The past few days have been enriching, and one feels one knows a little more — a little — than one knew before. One has also been given something to pass on to readers! Thanks so much for joining me this week. Have a fine Memorial Day weekend, and I’ll talk to you later.