The Therapy Sessions
Sunday, October 19, 2003
Friedman on the spirit of reform that is roiling the Arab world:
I should have known something was up when a Saudi diplomat recently asked me, "Do you know what kind of woman is most sought after as a wife by Saudi men today?" No, I said, what kind? "A woman with a job."
I thought of that when I read last week's announcement that within a year Saudi Arabia would conduct its first real elections — for municipal councils. Most people thought it would snow in Saudi Arabia before there would be elections. So what's up?
What's up are three big shocks hammering the Arab system. First, with oil revenues flat, there isn't enough money anymore to buy off, or provide jobs to, the exploding Arab populations. Hence the growing need for wives with work. The second is the Iraq war shock. Even with all the problems in Baghdad now, virtually every autocratic Arab regime is starting to prepare for the uncomfortable possibility that by 2005 Iraq will hold a free election, which will shame all those who never have. As Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president, likes to say, "One good example is worth a thousand theories." Iraq — maybe — could be that example.
But there is another tremor shaking the Arab world. This one is being set off by a group of courageous Arab social scientists, who decided, with the help of the United Nations, to begin fighting the war of ideas for the Arab future by detailing just how far the Arab world has fallen behind and by laying out a progressive pathway forward. Their first publication, the Arab Human Development Report 2002, explained how the deficits of freedom, education and women's empowerment in the Arab world have left the region so behind that the combined G.D.P. of the 22 Arab states was less than that of a single country — Spain. Even with limited Internet access in the Arab world, one million copies of this report were downloaded, sparking internal debates.