Today is the last day of 1996. When this year started, I was optimistic, perhaps overly optimistic, that it could be a better year than the previous one. However, as with other years, I was proved wrong. Somehow things don't seem to be better. Why? No one knows. Perhaps we don't read history. As someone said, those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. And this is what we are doing. Repeating past mistakes, focusing on narrow issues, engaging in trivial pursuits and more concerned with form than content.
We in the Arab world have not learned from the past. I am not a pessimist by any stretch of imagination. Nor are millions of ordinary Arabs, like me, whose main concern is to prepare their children for the challenges of the twenty-first century. It is a journey into the unknown. Others around us are charting their courses. We, on the other hand, seem willing to be pulled whichever way by the tides. What do I think should be done in 1997?
In the Arab world or, if I may narrow it down to the Gulf, we need to evaluate our educational system. Are we preparing our children and arming them with the knowledge that can make them compete with others or are we content that they remain parrots - echoing much of the outdated knowledge that is being spoon-fed to them? Do we have educational institutions that encourage creativity and brainstorming? Or is our world of academics too much embroiled in bureaucratic wrangling that stifles teachers. Have we given our academics their rightful place in society? We should remember that these young men and women are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. They will fill in the positions that await them. Will they be able to rise to the occasions? That all depends on parents, teachers and society.
On another level we have become a nation of consumers. I remember hearing the wife of a Gulf diplomat very proudly telling a group of Asian ladies that the perfumes of Paris reach our markets before they are displayed in Paris. I will not comment on the looks of the Asian ladies! This is what I mean about misplaced priorities. We are happy and proud to be a consumer society. While other nations are becoming producer nations, we charge headlong in the opposite direction. While others are adding indigenous methods and applications to imported technologies, we are displaying our "concrete culture."
Nations and peoples who do not produce will be reduced to the level of serfs - to be dished out articles and ideas after more progressive societies have rejected them. This is what our captains of business and industry should realize. And while it is too early to point fingers at the business community, one has also to look at their non-stop battle with bureaucracy. How much red tape they have to unwind no one knows. With GATT and the WTO breathing down our necks, it is important that bureaucracy and industry become partners in the pursuit of development goals beneficial to society. We talk of privatization. Let us translate our words in action. Remember it is a tough world, and as they say in America: "In life there are no free meals."
On the subject of consumption, if we look at food we should be fearful. The Arab world, despite having some very fertile ground and significant water resources, imports the majority of its food. That should be a major consideration for our agricultural planners in 1997. Khalil Gibran the Lebanese poet summed it up nicely when he wrote these words: "Pity the nation that wears cloth it does not weave, eats bread it does not harvest and drinks juice that flows not from its own fruit trees".
As we commence 1997 we should also take stock of social conditions in our part of the world. Efforts should be made to create citizens who should have, besides duties, equal rights. Human decency should prevail; respect for individual rights and freedom of expression should not be curtailed by draconian laws. A society can only flourish when it is not bound or regimented. It can bloom like a thousand flowers when the mind is not captive. As we approach the twenty-first century we should see that our thoughts and efforts are not harnessed.
In our dealings with the outside world our new year's resolution should be that of caution. While not subscribing to the "conspiracy theory" we have to be vigilant for it is the price of eternal liberty. Our enemies are plotting to undermine us. If they can't do it militarily they will resort to methods aimed at tearing down the social fabric, causing society to disintegrate. The resulting chaos will make it easy for us to be dominated. Therefore, in 1997 we should also resolve to stick to our ideology, follow the pristine teachings of Islam and be tolerant. This will result in a tension-free society which is comfortable with itself and can co-exist with others. This will help us gain the respect of others.
The best way to guard against complacency is a media that evaluates the performance of society. A media that concerns itself with pandering to the powers that be, rather than aiming at promoting unity, righteousness and raising the social consciousness of the people, is no media at all. There is no harm in criticizing and evaluating the performance of society. And it should be taken in good spirit.
We in the Gulf have many goals and aspirations. At the same time we have to be bold enough to admit that there are many issues we have to resolve and brushing them under our carpet is not the right thing to do. Therefore, let one of our major resolutions for 1997 be to face facts. That itself will be a good start for 1997.