Since the current wave of global change accelerated after the end of the Cold War, mention of globalization has tended to upset Arabs. However, 2007 could be the year that the Arab World really moved closer to the rest of the globe. Politically, this was evident in the Annapolis conference, where — under watchful American eyes — for the first time high-level representatives of Saudi Arabia and Syria sat down in public with Israeli officials, a powerful symbol of the region’s engagement with the West and its stepchild Israel. In the economic sphere, vast Arab investments were welcome in Western countries, sometimes as sizeable, controlling interests in big-name global companies. Not all deals went off without a hitch, witness the Qataris backing off over the takeover of the major British retail chain Sainsbury’s. But it will soon be forgotten, as the 2005/06 failed attempt by Dubai World Ports to invest in the US was forgotten, while Arab money poured into shaky Western stock markets. Moves in the opposite direction were also evident, as global businesses headed in greater numbers to Arab countries.
Along with these developments, the message that finally started to come across in 2007 is globalization is neither necessarily good nor bad, but it is here and it is important. The term still has negative connotations in the region, but 2007 has shown that to integrate into the world does not mean that Arab countries will have to surrender their identity.
Nevertheless, the big deal for the eastern part of the Arab region remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Annapolis has not of course resolved the problem, but things may be better after that meeting than they were before. In the Maghreb on the other hand, the major issue is closer relations with Europe and it is important that French president Sarkozy chose to roll out his Mediterranean Union initiative in that corner of the Arab World. Like Annapolis to the eastern Arab countries, the launch of the idea of a Mediterranean Union does not signal that all of the Maghreb’s problems are over. However, this indication of an increased European role in the region is critical. In the East too, greater EU involvement in the peace process could help. Europeans being involved more in the Arab World means more emphasis on the bright side of globalization and this seems to have gained ground in the Arab World during 2007.
Turning from the big picture to nitty-gritty issues at the center of globalization, such as logistics, is also revealing, in terms of changes taking place within the Arab World. For example, the World Bank’s first Logistics Performance Index ranked Lebanon 98th among 150 countries worldwide and 13th among 17 Arab states. The index covers ability to track and trace shipments, timely arrival, customs procedures, logistics costs, infrastructure quality, and competence of the domestic logistics industry. Globally, Lebanon tied with Zambia and ranked behind Papua New Guinea, and was below both the global average and the Arab score. Examples of Lebanon’s performance vis-à-vis Arab states in individual sub-indices were especially grim: tying Syria and behind Yemen on the customs sub-index, below Mauritania on the infrastructure measure, behind Tunisia on logistics competence, and weaker than Egypt on tracking and tracing. To mention Lebanon’s logistics in the same breath as most of these countries would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But today, while much of the region advances and globalizes, the Lebanese wallow in instability.
However, even considering Lebanon, the past year appears to have been better for the Arab World as a whole, at least in terms of macro-economic indicators. Was the same true regarding the average person living in the region? Maybe not, so how can the benefits of growth and globalization that accrue to the rich and well-connected help the average person in 2008? The answer may be larger doses of democracy and liberalization to bring the region into better harmony with the forces of globalization. Well thought out democratic practices and properly introduced liberalization are valuable in making the best of globalization. Take as an example the recent and continuing entry of Arab countries into trade agreements. The experience of various regions, including Latin America and South and East Asia, suggests that the negotiation capacity of states seeking to join trade pacts actually increases in the presence of pressure groups. By contrast, in many cases Arab negotiators themselves monopolize, and so weaken, their own countries’ negotiation position. The challenge remains to revitalize labor unions, professional syndicates, and business associations as partners in public decision-making, to make the best of globalizing. The alternative is globalization for the rich and powerful and a doubtful future for the rest of the population.