What the Arab World Needs Is to Adopt the Rule of Law

News Abroad

Dr. Sullivan is a professor of economics at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the National Defense University of any entity of the US government.

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The Arab world is a place of great and glorious, creative and cultured, innovative and inspiring history. The first known civilizations in Iraq and Egypt were there. Great science, architecture, poetry, architecture and art were created throughout the centuries in the Arab world. Greek civilization was preserved and built upon by the Arabs. The Arabs were the pacesetters for other civilizations for centuries. The Koran and Islam came out of the Arabian deserts.

The Arabs carry a very heavy burden of history with them. Why is such past greatness a burden? The Arab world no longer has a civilization of creativity and innovation that sets the intellectual world on fire. The rest of the world sees it as a place of many fires of violence, dissent, anger, and political, economic and military impotence.

It is now one of the least developed regions. It has significant poverty, huge unemployment and one of the smallest amounts of foreign investment of any World Bank region. It is also the only region that has shown a negative economic return to educational spending over the last 20 years. The Arab world produces a tiny number of patents and trademarks. It barely shows on the charts of the numbers of scientific papers written.

The Arabs are potentially some of the most creative people in earth. History has shown that. But this is not history. This is now. They only need the right institutions, laws, and leaders to make it happen in the future. Peace, both domestic and international, and psychological as well as military and diplomatic would also help.

Dictatorship has not been the answer. Socialism has not been the solution. Extremism has not, and will not, bring the Arab world to any better state. Violence has never been the answer.

Their countries could once again be leaders in invention, innovation, art, science, and more if only the Arab people were given the right chances, freedoms, education, and, and this is very important, a rule of law* that works to protect the Arabs from the economic and political predators in their midst. Some Arab countries have progressed on this in the last few years. Others say they have progressed in order to put a spin on their lack of progress.

Speedy trials by a group of one's peers could be a good step forward. Ensuring an independent and incorruptible judiciary could be a large step ahead for some. Codification and computerization of laws, and the education of judges and lawyers to use these computerized and codified laws could go a long way.

Transparency of arguments and rulings is vital. There is a saying in the U.S. that "the sun is the best disinfectant". Such changes in legal systems could help bring in foreign investment and spur domestic investment, invention, innovation, art, and science. Solid sets of trademark, copywrite, and patent laws that are enforced properly, fairly, and fully, could help the Arabs climb back toward the peaks of creativity they once enjoyed.

Rights of habeas corpus, the right to be brought in front of a judge to decide the legality of one's detention or imprisonment, and something akin to the Miranda Ruling may also help.

Also, there is a saying here in the U.S. that "a man's house is his castle." I notice that the Arab people see this in a similar fashion. Police and troops searching a man's home without a proper warrant from a proper judge is an affront and an insult to his family. It is dishonorable for a country to allow this -- any country.

Better laws, better enforcement of laws, and more will improve the Arab world more than anyone could imagine. People will feel safer and more secure with their ideas and investments, and more. Legal uncertainties and opacities often lead investors and inventors, creators and artists, to look elsewhere.

Checks and balances in government, and full accountability of all in the government at all levels, as well as greater government transparency could help foreign investors to decide whether the Arab world is the place for them. Such changes could also help an Arab artist, writer, scientist, businessman, or inventor to decide whether to develop his ideas and businesses in the Arab world or to immigrate and keep the "brain drain" flowing out of the Arab world. Many of the best and brightest have left countries that need them the most.

A rule of law could be established in all Arab states for all Arabs, not just for the elite and the connected. The overwhelming political, economic, educational, and social discriminations produced through wasta and koosa (both meaning connections and nepotism) are huge stumbling blocks for many Arabs, and for the betterment of the Arab world. Wasta is a waste for all but those who exploit it.

Governments could be established for, by and of the Arab people, not for, by and of those with wasta and koosa. When that happens the Arab world will be on its way on the straight path to a better future. If that is not allowed the happen the Arabs could be either on the same road to nowhere slowly, or on an even more dangerous, revolutionary and violent road backwards.

Indeed the Arabs deserve better than what they have. Producing real rules of law and transparent governments with proper checks and balances -- that are developmentally and Arab-friendly -- could be a giant step forward. But it is also clear that it should be up to the Arab people to decide how this is done, and what the end results should be. Leaving it too much to outsiders could cause more problems than cures.

*None of this is to say that the legal system or the rule of law in the US is perfect. There are some significant problems, some of which are cropping up in the treatment of Arabs and Muslims recently. The Patriot Acts I and II also have some serious problems with them. Also, there are some general inadequacies in the rule of law in the US that could be corrected. Some legal actions since 9-11 in the name of national security seem dangerous to the rights and protections of citizens and visitors to the US.

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More Comments:

mark safranski - 7/12/2003

International Law and positive law - which is what is meant by the term " rule of law " - are not the same things. Many points of international law are merely moral assertions, customary practices or subject to interpretation or voluntary compliance according to the dictates of sovereignty. Other points of international law are considered binding international treaties.

I'm also highly skeptical that nations that have no concept of Lex Rex within their borders are likely to be compliant with either the spirit or letter of international law beyond their borders. So yes, the United States is a good model in that regard.


Howard N Meyer - 7/9/2003

It may be as you say, that the "Arab World" needs rule-of-law.
Are we the ones to teach them?
Since the Reagan response to the World Court and its verdict in the NICARAGUA case, the U.S.-- bipartisanly -- has been seceding from the World Community and the Rule of Law we helped grow over the years, culminating in the World Court post-Versailles and its successor, Post San Francisco/1945. Bush is the worst culprit but not the first ! See THE WORLD COURT IN ACTION by oufr colleague Howard N Meyer.