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Rima Khalaf: Arab Integration – A 21st Century Development Imperative (Report UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia)

ESCWA calls for Arab Integration as a Development Imperative in the 21st Century

Despite obstacles, there are still good reasons to believe that the dream of Arab unity can be realized

As widespread strife and myriad conflicts continue to ravage the Arab world, calls for regional integration could at first seem outdated, if not the
product of hopelessly wishful thinking. Yet in the face of such daunting challenges, Arab countries — whether rich or poor — will remain powerless
in the global arena if they fail to unite. This becomes obvious when the Arab States are compared to the emerging powers, giant conglomerates and
powerful regional blocs that dominate the twenty-first century world.

This is the case made by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in a report entitled Arab Integration: A 21st Century
Development Imperative, launched today by Dr. Rima Khalaf, Executive Secretary of the Commission. The report is the result of a collaborative
ESCWA initiative that involved a group of distinguished Arab thinkers from various disciplines, occupations, and backgrounds, reflecting the diversity of
the Arab region — a diversity which, the report argues, should form the basis of integration.

The report points to the common language, culture, history and geographical proximity of the Arab countries in making the case for
integration as a prerequisite for human development and Arab renaissance. It refers to contemporary examples of regional integration in other parts of the world which have resulted in achievements that would have remained beyond the reach of individual States. The report notes that the Arab region, with its history of fragmentation and flawed policy choices, has been left vulnerable to oppression, foreign intervention and stifled development; it is a legacy that the authors insist can only be overcome through regional integration.

The report comes at a time when the Arab region is in the throes of bitter internal conflicts that have in some cases erupted into all-out war, possibly the result of long decades of exclusion, marginalization and regional fragmentation. These conflicts have caused many to lose hope of ever achieving Arab integration, given that many countries in the region struggle to preserve even a minimal level of peaceful coexistence among their populations. Arab integration has also been impeded by regional and foreign actors with conflicting interests, and by the absence of conditions conducive to the development of an effective project for Arab liberation and renaissance.

Yet despite these obstacles, there are still good reasons to believe that the dream of Arab integration can be realized. As the second decade of the twenty-first century began, a popular awakening spread throughout the Arab world demanding freedom, justice, equality and development. The Arab uprisings effectively refuted misplaced assertions that the Arabs were somehow unfit for democracy. They heralded a historic realignment of the region towards democratic governance and social, economic and cultural renaissance.

The report acknowledges that some Arab countries in transition have descended into violence and argues that, although democracy in Arab countries will encounter obstacles — as has been the case in every other part of the world — there is little doubt that the will of the people will ultimately prevail. The Arabs, and in particular the youth, have broken once and for all the shackles of tyranny and fear. They are determined to build their future with their own hands, restore justice and prosperity, and regain their rightful place in the world.

Seizing on this momentum, the new ESCWA report lays out a strategic vision for achieving Arab integration across the spectrum of political, economic, social, public and cultural life. While accepting that consensus is not possible on every detail, the authors assert that this strategy is an integration road map with a record of delivering security, stability and prosperity to other countries with less in common than those of the Arab region.

The comprehensive integration called for in the report does not seek to detract from existing Arab economic integration projects, but rather to complement and broaden them to include all aspects of political, educational and cultural life. Its goal is not to isolate the Arab world from its natural surroundings or from the rest of the world, but rather to strengthen economic ties with other regional blocs and groups, especially in Africa and Asia, and broaden the opportunities for mutual enrichment.

The report views the divisions within the Arab region as the result of inadequate policies and outside interference which, it charges, have damaged the unity created by the common Arabic language and culture. The Arab uprisings, however, proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the heritage, language and history of the Arab people are and will continue to be irrepressible forces in the twenty-first century.

Despite the shortcomings and failures that have blighted past attempts at Arab integration, it continues to feature among the most cherished aspirations of the Arab people; it is they who have kept the dream of integration alive. Arabs from different countries have rallied together on a range of political and social issues. Time and again, they have defied national boundaries and the divisions that have so often characterized dealings among their rulers. Today they use social media to collaborate as closely as neighbours. Perhaps the strongest example of this dynamic is the unwavering popular solidarity with the plight of the Palestinian people — a cause that unites Arab people from all walks of life and from every country of the region.

Like a great ship on rough seas, the Arab world today is in desperate need of safe harbour. This new ESCWA report makes a bold case for Arab integration as the beacon that could guide the region out of harm’s way, and towards a renaissance befitting of its heritage and the aspirations of its people.

Source: ESCWA

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