WHAT went wrong with the Arab world? Why is it so stuck behind the times? It is not an obviously unlucky region. Fatly endowed with oil, and with its people sharing a rich cultural, religious and linguistic heritage, it is faced neither with endemic poverty nor with ethnic conflict. It shook off its colonial or neo-colonial legacies long ago, and the countries that had revolutions should have had time to recover from them. But, with barely an exception, its autocratic rulers, whether presidents or kings, give up their authority only when they die; its elections are a sick joke; half its people are treated as lesser legal and economic beings, and more than half its young, burdened by joblessness and stifled by conservative religious tradition, are said to want to get out of the place as soon as they can.
Across dinner tables from Morocco to the Gulf, but above all in Egypt, the Arab world's natural leader, Arab intellectuals endlessly ask one another how and why things came to turn out in this unnecessarily bad way. A team of such scholars (it is indicative of the barriers to freely expressed thought that there are almost no worthwhile think-tanks in the Arab world) have now spent a year putting their experience to diagnostic use in the Arab Human Development Report 2002, published this week by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
With Nader Fergany, an Egyptian sociologist, as the chief author, the report carefully dissects and analyses the Arab world's strengths and failings. The strengths, alas, consume little space; the failings are what interest the writers. Inbuilt caution holds them back from naming too many names, but they explain honestly and convincingly how and why they think their world has gone wrong.