One of the missing components in Arab societies is academic excellence. This, I believe, is the result of many factors. One of the key ones, it could be argued, is that individuals in the Arab World do not see a clear correlation between academic excellence and career success. This seems to be changing slowly. It will not change significantly though, until there is general cultural acceptance of this correlation. More broadly, the countries of the Arab World need to get better at rewarding people based on talent and hard work, rather than based on ethnicity, or country of origin. Status needs to be attained based on merit, and not based on what one wears, the car one drives, or the tribe that one belongs to.
While every culture has its pros and cons, this aspect of Arab culture may be one of the reasons for the generally low levels of productivity and creativity. In other words, the close familial ties, and the cultural nature to devalue merit, and overvalue traditions, creates strong societal ties, but it has a negative impact on economic progress.
Another critical reason for the lack of academic excellence may be the feeling among many Arabs that they live in an unfair world, in which effort and good intentions do not get rewarded. This in the Arab psyche is the result of a combination of geopolitical factors that may have impacted the current mindset. If one were to peer into the minds of Arabs, they would find a conflicted organism. It would be a mind that sees the world unfairly due to a long history of civil wars, corruption, famine, and revolution. In this environment, academic excellence is not of as much use.
Most Arabs see the Palestine issue as a core injustice. They feel that the creation of a two-state solution that can allow Palestinians and Israelis to live peacefully is a requirement that is long overdue. When one combines this with the series of revolutions and civil wars that Arab people have endured, it becomes not surprising then that in many pockets of the Arab World, daily life for the past few generations in many cases has revolved around “I just want to not die today” or more likely “I just want to die of natural causes one day”. This culture of persecution has an impact on what parents teach their kids from Iraq to Lebanon to Libya, and about what society and experience teach the Arab collective, about the value of education, or more likely the low priority given to education, in this complex ecosystem. This then makes it somewhat easier to understand what is preventing the creation of a meritocracy in the Arab World.
There are pockets of hope though. The countries of the GCC have the potential to recalibrate things over the coming decades. They have been amongst the fastest growing and most dynamic economies of the world since the discovery of oil. They collectively account for approximately half of the total 3 trillion US Dollar Arab World economy. All have in recent years taken bold steps to nurture and reward merit, and to diversify their dependence away from oil. They have also invested heavily in scholarships and on quality education to their people while rewarding people based on capability, attitude, effort, and results. They have been a shining ray of hope of what is possible when merit is nurtured and will likely collectively be amongst the 10 largest economies in the World over the coming generation. Their collective success will likely be the tide that lifts all boats in the Arab World and changes the Arab mindset from one of dependence and conspiracy to one of hope and intellect.
It might be said too though, that the discovery of oil in the region has been a key factor that has devalued merit, even while it has helped to finance the education and well-being of the people of the area. Many Arabs tend to see wealth creation as simply an accident of where one is born. Those born in oil rich countries get rich, and those born in countries with no oil do not. The difficulty to migrate from the oil poor countries to the oil rich countries, or to migrate from the oil poor countries to anywhere in the world for that matter, act to exacerbate this feeling. Moreover, the general perception is that no degree from Oxford or Cambridge or even MIT will allow one to change the color or usefulness or location of the black gold from which many of their brethren subsist. Perhaps more importantly, no degree will change your nationality or your tribe, and this then explains why many feel that the main determinant of their wealth is an accident that is determined by fate and can only be influenced by prayer or good luck, rather than by hard work, creativity, or ingenuity. This may also explain the pervasiveness of the word Inshallah (God willing) in the Arab vocabulary and Arab parlance over the past fifty years. In this narrative, is oil then a blessing or a curse? It has brought wealth, but it has also brought war and complacency. It has built our roads, but what has it done for our minds? What has it done to our minds?
Arab tribes have long learnt how to deal with adversity. It is a mindset that has allowed them to survive as a collective for centuries without much access to water or food, in one of the most inhospitable climates on our planet. In a culture in which staying alive was an everyday struggle, societal bonds and familial support over the centuries had taken precedence over individuality. This may explain why Arab clothing is so uniform, as though the intent is to not highlight the individual but the collective. This feeling then, that we either all sink together or float together, is one that an observer would find still forms the nucleus that bonds the confines of many families and tribes. It is then not surprising too why loyalty to the tribe, respect for societal traditions, and a reverence for the community, persist as Arab values, and are seen as more important than individuality, merit, and intellect.