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Disunited Arab Eminence

Daoud Kuttab photo
Daoud KuttabAmman, Jordan
Disunited Arab Eminence
Daoud Kuttab on the veneration of the powerful individual over unity and team achievement

A quick survey of the success of Arabs at the Olympic Games shows an important phenomenon. With the exception of the bronze won by the Saudi equestrian jumping team in the 2012 London games, none of the nearly 100 medals won by Arab countries came from a team sport.

Some of the Arab individual medal winners include athletes like Taoufik Makhlouf, 2012 gold winner of the 1,500-m race, Syria’s Ghada Shouaa, who won the 1996 heptathlon in Atlanta and Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, who won gold in the 1,500-m and 5,000-m races in the 2004 games in Athens.

In the World Cup, the best that Arab countries have done is to reach the last sixteen before faltering.

Winning individual medals takes a lot of effort and dedication, but winning at a team sport requires added sense of cooperation, sacrifice and selflessness.

Our failure at successful teamwork is not limited to sports. We excel in family businesses, but do poorly in the corporate world.

Family businesses make up over 85 per cent of the whole Arab world’s non-oil GDP, according to the Emirati 24/7 publication. Some of our successful companies are doing well because of a certain individual or family at its head.

Public libraries in the Arab world are like haunted houses. Arabs who boasted about the Alexandria Library have abandoned the public sphere or the book sharing and book exchange habit; most of our intellectuals have huge libraries in their homes but do not bother to bestow their book collections to any public institute, often resulting in the trashing or even burning of their books later.

Economically, we fail to work together as Arabs, preferring to trade with other countries, leaving inter-Arab trade at a shameful 8 per cent.

Economic reporters often spot items made in the Arab world purchased through third parties, often European traders.

Professional associations and student unions hate the idea of proportional representation and prefer the winner take all system. Our university students are unable to resolve differences through dialogue and debate, and resort to violence on college campuses to resolve the silliest of conflicts.

In politics, the situation is no better. Whenever we have general elections, the system favours individuals, rather than the party system.

Tribalism is very much alive in many of our countries. The public gets to vote for a man, rather than for the collective. And when electoral laws allow for parties or lists, the number of lists that run are so many that they make the prospect of effective governance near impossible.

As a result, parliamentary governments are a big failure in the Arab world, while monarchies are stable and relatively successful.

Then one hears slogans such as Jordan First, Egypt First, Libya First and so on.

When the results of the latest British elections came in last week, three heads of the losing parties resigned, making room for individuals with new ideas to try and do better in the next round of elections.

Our party leaders would rather die before resigning and giving a chance to younger leaders.

Check out some of the Arab leaders today. Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been in power since 1999. He was just re-elected, even though he is extremely sick and was barely able to say the needed words for his swearing in.

Other leaders had to be exiled, imprisoned or violently replaced. Even after he left, Yemen’s leader made a comeback using loyal military commanders.

Mahmoud Abbas has been in power for over 10 years. Monarchs of course are leaders for life. It took the current King of Saudi Arabia great courage to bring about a generational change.

We are blessed, as an Arab nation, with a single language and culture, and a social cohesiveness that is the envy of other regional groupings.

Most Arab countries witnessed post-colonialism during roughly the same period. We have a strong Arab nationalism that was made clear during the Arab Spring, and we all watch the same satellite stations that have helped unify even our colloquial differences into a new satellite colloquial Arabic that everyone understands.

So why, then, with a unified language and culture, we are so bad at working together? What can be done to stem this sense of individualism and replace it with a more effective team spirit?

There is no magic solution. We need to work on all levels to inculcate the importance of the collective. We must start celebrating team successes much more than individual achievements.

We need to create a culture that supports and encourages collective work.

Such effort is needed at all levels. An entire societal change is required if we are ever going to overcome this core problem and build proper societies that are based on complementary thinking and cooperation, rather than on competition and individualism.

Main image of Taoufik Makhloufi, credit: Magharebia 2012

#individualism, #Arab identity, #collectivism, #competition, #Arab Spring, #leadership