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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 2002
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- I had been in Saudi Arabia several days and interviewed many Saudis before fate finally put me on the phone with Khaled Al Maeena, editor in chief of the Arab News.
"What, you didn't call me first?" he exclaimed in mock outrage. "Every visiting journalist knows to call me first."
I had never heard of Al Maeena before that afternoon, let alone thought to call him the minute I set foot on Saudi soil. I came to discover that he is worth listening to, or at least worth reading, for this reason: He's among a small but growing number of prominent Arabs who aren't afraid to question why their countries are lagging behind.
An important step in this much-needed debate was the recent release of the Arab Human Development Report 2002, commissioned by the United Nations.
Although Arab countries have made significant strides in reducing poverty and increasing life expectancy, the report warns that "much still needs to be done" in social, economic and political reforms.
Al Maeena was not among the report's authors. But in a provocative column, he accepted many of its findings and called on Arabs to engage in some soul-searching.
"The report must be looked at with an open mind and efforts must be made to produce solutions," he wrote in his Jeddah-based daily. "It would indeed be a terrible tragedy if 20 years from now a similar report were made and the same unsolved problems were identified."
And what are those problems? Education is the biggest, Al Maeena says:
"Far too many of our Arab schools and universities turn out parrots. I define "parrots' as those who have memorized a great deal but who can apply the material in no practical way. ... These parrots cannot possibly evaluate anything since they have not been taught to do anything but memorize. And what can be expected in real terms of a parrot?"
Al-Maeena was "particularly shocked" by one finding: The Arab world -- with 280-million people -- translates only 330 books a year into Arabic. That's one-fifth the number that Greece, with 11-million residents, translates annually.
"No one, of course, would maintain that every book written is worth translating but certainly of all the millions of books published every year, there should be more than 330 worth translating into Arabic," Al Maeena says.
"The implications of this are plain and, in the long term, devastating. An immense quantity of information is thus unavailable in the Arab world. Archaic laws are responsible for some of this but another problem is a lack of curiosity -- and so we come back to the parrot. It never seeks new information; it simply repeats what it has been told, blissfully unaware of anything else."
Because they sit on much of the world's oil, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations should be among the wealthiest and most advanced. Yet in the U.N.'s latest Human Development Index -- which measures a country's achievements in terms of education, life expectancy and personal income -- no Arab country ranks in the top 25.
Only four small Arab nations -- Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar -- make it into the top 53, those with "high human development." Although it has the world's largest oil reserves, Saudi Arabia comes in at No. 71, trailing even poor eastern European countries like Romania and Macedonia.
The Arab News' Al Maeena is not the only Saudi who finds this disturbing.
"I was angry and jealous on seeing us occupying such positions (because) we hear and read in the press that we are the best," Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Hahari wrote in another Saudi daily. "We are told that our streets are the best, our education system is the best and our development drive should put us within the ranks of advanced countries."
The Human Development Index is designed to call attention to more in-depth U.N. reports like that on Arab progress. But whether you glance at the index or read the entire Arab report, it is clear that the Arab world is a long way from fulfilling its potential:
In the past 20 years, the growth in per capita income was the lowest anywhere except for sub-Saharan Africa. If the trend continues, it will take the average Arab 140 years to double his or her income, compared to less than 10 years for people in other regions.
Investment in research and development is less than one-seventh of the world average.
Arab women have the world's lowest rate of participation in the work force and lowest rate of representation in legislative bodies. One in two Arab women can't read or write. "Sadly," the report says, "the Arab world is largely depriving itself of the creativity and productivity of half its citizens."
Of the seven major regions, the Arab world has the lowest "freedom" score -- a measure of public involvement in the political process and media independence.
Arab countries have been slow to engage in constructive self-criticism -- an essential step to righting what's wrong in their societies and defusing the anger and frustrations that can lead to violent extremism. It's encouraging that Arabs like Al-Maeena are taking up the challenge laid out in this ground-breaking U.N. report.
"Sometimes what is said is unpleasant; it is not what we want to hear and not what we want to be true," he writes. "Still, it deserves analysis and if it turns out to be true, some kind of corrective action must be taken. If it turns out to be false ... then we can indulge in one of our favorite pastimes: finger-pointing. But is finger-pointing useful? Does it solve any problems?"
-- Susan Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
6. United States
13. United Kingdom
71. Saudi Arabia