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Unrest in the Arab Street: A View from an Arab American PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Imad Abdullah   
Friday, 29 April 2011 17:01

As a frequent traveler to the Middle East over the last 40 years, I would like to contribute observations and comparisons to highlight issues that cause frustration to the Arab citizen in his daily pursuits, and which get manifested as unrest in the streets. 


With all the available media and modern networking, the Arab street is watching the future go by and wants to be included. While the US and much of Europe have been established for over 200 years and have advanced systems of Capitalism, most of the Arab countries are relatively new and still in formation, with only 60 to 70 years since independence. They have been thrust into the future without enough time to build their institutions and to develop internally, and it takes substantial time to acquire the credentials to attract capital for growth and projects.


Much has already been achieved: Institutions for higher learning, medical facilities, and highways that link major cities and countries. Private banking is reasonably flourishing, local stock market exchanges are in place and promising, and crossing borders is quite streamlined including the recent opening between Syria with Turkey. Much effort is done to have clean cities and to ensure the personal safety of citizens, and many countries have enjoyed extended stability, a primary requirement for inducing investments.


The large majority of citizens simply want to advance economically, live a decent life and have reasonable means to raise a family. The same applies to Americans in the United States, where they look to the private sector for advancement and prefer government to be “out of the way”, as contrasted with the Arab World where the citizenry is always looking for the government to take charge.


What did the US do different?


Long ago, the US instituted Policies and regulations to facilitate the process for the private sector to flourish and to encourage private investments. Private Capital is always scared capital, and in turbulent and uncertain times it can pull to the sideline. The US is among the best countries for business startups due to the very low number of permits required to open a business, sometimes less than 10. In various countries worldwide, the number of permits could reach 50 or more, which results in graft and bribes to get the process moving, and at times encourages business without permits. Reducing this unnecessary time and effort can attract international investments and facilitate the formation of locally funded public corporations.


In Representation and Governance, Americans are represented in Congress by their elected officials, based on districts with very diverse constituents. As such, politicians seeking office or reelection must serve all this diversity, and they must transcend personalities, sectarian origins and religious affiliations. In the US Senate, each State is represented by 2 elected Senators regardless of its population.  The system allows representation through the one-person one-vote in the House of Representatives, and yet protects the rights of small States through the Senate, resulting in a “Republican Democracy “ as it is referred to, and where the average citizen has reasonable expectation of fairness and equity, and concentrates on production and advancement.


Government in the US undertakes large public works projects. This includes power generation projects, world standard highways, Grand Stations for the public such as Central Station in New York (Victoria Station in London is similar), and Infrastructure to increase the availability of land for development. Projects require equal opportunities for bidding, and allow room for small companies to undertake part of the work in association with larger companies to build future experience and capabilities. Tourism Infrastructure and facilities are highly upgraded in the US at touristic sites and on roads leading to them, which increases business and tourism. In the Arab World, improved highway and street signs, both in Arabic and English and at adequate intervals would be very appreciated by tourists and the local population, especially new signs giving ample warning about the exits and with lane stripes on major roads. Tourists anticipate rest-stops with clean and modern restrooms, including at airports, and need detailed travel maps available at filling stations, tourist venues and at regular stores.


The US has advanced Real Estate methods for transactions and development. The real estate industry is highly controlled through standardized contracts, with reliable methods for property Title searches by insurable and bonded Title companies. Real Estate agents are licensed by the State to conduct business, and undergo continuous training to maintain their licenses. Trade organizations offer Multiple Listing Services where all brokers list their properties and are protected by a master agreement with the organization for their commissions and with defined performance expectations. Streamlining this industry in the Arab World can become a real catalyst to unleash private capital and investment, and to facilitate the process and choices for buyers and sellers.


The real estate industry flourishes when mortgages are available whether with government guarantees or through private sector investments, both local and international. In the Arab world, Dollar parity guarantees can be asked from borrowers to protect investors. Transactions can be simplified with a standardized process of inspecting properties before purchase, credible appraisals, and controls on code violations by increasing penalties substantially or disallowing violations altogether.


The present education systems in most Arab countries were inherited from the British or the French, and some may have become obsolete. In the US, education is Semester based and sometimes Quarter based. Study material in a Semester or Quarter gets tested only during that period, and when passed, the course is considered complete. Many in the US enroll in Liberal Arts degrees, which allow students to pursue advanced careers in a multitude of fields locally and abroad and to pursue specialized degrees at the Master’s and Doctorate levels. Liberal Arts classes can be very large in auditoriums with one lecturer, and would not be taxing on the overall system, and they will reduce the “repeat” of courses just to make the grade to enroll in one’s desired field. Passing courses would not be based on “curve grading” to limit the number of graduates entering the work force. Law Schools can have increased enrollment, and in due course, this is very beneficial as business transactions and investments function with more transparency and efficiency, and rely on a strong legal system for enforcement.


Public transportation and travel between cities and to foreign destination needs to be highly organized to facilitate commerce and personal travel. Major difficulties face passengers in many Arab countries, and they are exposed to weather and the elements, and the vagaries of some enterprising taxi owners. Some order can be applied to this industry with large enclosed and air-conditioned terminals, where passengers can take the cars from one area, and different private companies would have their cars in line with others based on a studied order.  The current system at Baramkeh in Damascus is a working example, while in Al-abdali in Amman passengers still have to wait at each private travel company for the Taxi to fill up before departure, or end up paying for the empty seats.


In some tourist destinations in Mexico, taxis are inspected every 3 months and require optimum safety of equipment. Taxis with Air-conditioning are promoted, and there are limitations on the time for a driver behind the wheel to increase alertness and safety.  The public is more receptive to fare increases when the services are improved.


Pedestrian safety can be increased by limiting unsafe crossing. “No-pedestrians” zone lines can be striped with enforced penalties for pedestrians who disobey the law. For example a no-pedestrian zone line can be drawn at the outer perimeter of a traffic roundabout. This prevents pedestrians from crossing between cars through the center of the roundabout to reduce the distance of walking around the circle. This system requires increased police visibility and presence to ensure enforcement.


In the US, the Non-profit sector is energized and encouraged extensively through tax policies which facilitate fundraising. This sector in turn assumes more responsibility for fellow citizens who otherwise rely on the government.


Government needs income, and in the US the system of Tax Collection is very advanced. This increases employment substantially to comply and to furnish documentation.  Furthermore, taxes help citizens become more cognizant of the country needs and develop more respect for public facilities, order and institutions, and good citizenry.


The complexity of the systems opens opportunities for employment by the private and public sectors to comply and to conduct business as required under the law. Though some of the concepts above can be easily implemented, others will require substantial funding. Western governments have been able to borrow on the world markets to fund their economies, and this remains a challenge for countries with restricted borrowing ability.


The above are civic matters with little relation to actual politics, and it is of interest to note that though countries such as Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan have totally different governing systems, they have very similar issues as discussed above.


Imad F Abdullah AIA, Principal, Landmark Architects Inc., Houston, Texas,

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