An Approach to Foundation Programming in the Middle East      November 7, 1968   

by Don Kingsley, previous Ford Foundation representative for the Middle East

(This is a preliminary paper for staff consideration and discussion. It is not a program document in any strict sense but aims, at most, to outline one possible agenda for the development of programs and to sketch some of the background relevant to such development. It is a beginning and not an end.)    


Jerash, Jordan 1973

1. Environment and People 

There are no generally accepted or satisfactory geographical definitions of the Middle East. Those who have undertaken to define it have been united in little more than the belief that it has both being and boundaries. The territory in the purview of the Foundation's Middle East office includes nine countries with a population of something over 109 million. The countries are small, only two of them (Egypt and Iran) having populations of more than 25 million, while four have less than five million. Except for Iran, they are also of very recent origin as independent states.  

Virtually the entire land area is arid or semi-arid and only a small fraction is cultivable, ranging from three percent in Egypt to 16 percent in Iraq and 30 percent in Syria. The remainder is desert waste or stony mountains stripped of topsoil. Yet somewhere between two thirds and three-quarters of all the people in the area are engaged in agricultural or pastoral pursuits. In the deserts and the mountains, they eke out a precarious livelihood with their flocks and lead a nomadic and pastoral life little changed in recorded time.  

By contrast, life is settled in the river valleys of the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the smallest Jordan. In the great and ancient cities of Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran, physical modernization rushes pell-mell along. This area, for thousands of years, has been the crossroads of the world and the melting pot of cultures. In its cities today, Western pragmatism and materialism are in heady conflict with the mysticism and stoicism of the East. But in more remote rural areas, the pace of change is slower and preoccupation is still with ancient feuds and conflicts.  

The population is an agglomerate of many races, tribes and nationalities: Semitic, Nilotic, Hamitic, Sudanic, Turks, Armenians, Berbers, Kurds. But except for the Persian in Iran, the dominant groups everywhere either are, or consider themselves to be, Arab. Tribal, family and feudal ties are still strong amongst them and national feelings (in the Western sense of nationalism) are growing slowly as a result of contact with the West. *  There is undoubtedly a frustrated desire for a broader unity which has led to repeated interference by one Arab country or another in the internal affairs of its neighbors, thus contributing to the political instability of the region. But the idea of an "Arab Nation" seems far more romantic than real. It may materialize in time and might be a powerful force in helping to surmount the handicaps imposed on the area by its balkanization by the colonial powers after World War I. But the contrapuntal forces of traditional nationalism and of parochial economic and political interests seem more likely to command the field than do either Pan-Islam or Part-Arab movements.  

* "Nationalism in the Arab world should be understood as a function of the Arabs' encounter with the West."  H. B. Sharabi, "The Crisis of the Intelligentsia," in Richard H. Nolte, The Modern Middle East.  

Except in the case of Lebanon (and, of course, of Israel), the dominant religion in the Middle East is Islam. At its height, this once provided the focus, energy and drive essential to unification of this diverse population. Islam is still a powerful influence, but it has suffered erosion over time and the idea of an “Islamic Nation" would appear to be even further from reality than that of the Arab Nation. Islam is itself split into two major and often conflicting groups (Sunni and Shia) and into a variety of smaller sects like the Alawites and the Druze. Significant Christian communities also exist throughout the area -- Copts, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Maronites -- as do some remnants of formerly important Jewish communities. There exists, therefore, very considerable religious diversity and inter-confessional tension which finds political expression in most countries of the Middle East.  

Much has been written on the subject of cultural inhibitions to economic development, and some undoubtedly exist. As Jacques Berques, amongst others, has pointed out, there is much in the economic teachings of Islam that is antithetical to development as experienced in the West. Islam "advocates immediacy in transaction, almost simultaneous exchange. As soon as there is delay in fulfillment, as in forward deals or limited partnerships, the Arab hesitates. He grows strongly suspicious of the very formulae to which world economy owes its growth. It is founded on a study of probabilities, whereas Islamic dogma proscribes the taking of risk..."  

It also proscribes the taking of interest and the making of money from money. These attitudes underlie much of the conspicuous consumption for which the wealthy of the Middle East have been justly famous and explains the willingness of more than one oil-rich sheik to build apartment houses in Beirut, for example, but to make no effort to rent the apartments. Just as the Islamic world escaped the impact of the Cartesian revolution it also missed the distorted dynamism of the Puritan ethic. 

The structure of the economies of the Middle East is relatively simple. Agriculture and husbandry occupy most of the population, and improvements in these areas offer the greatest promise for raising general living standards and providing a basis for solid economic growth. Most agriculture is on a subsistence basis at present and only Syria normally produces enough to feed its population. All other countries in the area are importers of foodstuffs and particularly of cereals. Unless food production can be expanded and more rapid progress made in population control than now seems probable, the situation will grow steadily worse as population increases at an estimated rate of two and one-half to three percent a year.  

Agricultural products do occupy a significant place in the limited export trade of the region: cotton (Egypt, Syria, Sudan); dates (Iraq, Saudi Arabia); fruit and vegetables (Lebanon, Jordan); hides (Libya, Iraq). But it is petroleum that has raised the economies above the subsistence level. Oil is the most important factor in the economies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf States, Iraq, Iran, Libya and -- potentially -- of the United Arab Republic. Lebanon, without oil of its own, prospers as a banking, commercial and service center from the inflow of cash to which oil gives rise; and truncated Jordan has lived since the June war on the subsidy provided by the oil-rich Arab states. Syria and Lebanon also share revenues from the pipeline traversing their territories. Industrial development is limited but significantly growing in Iran, Lebanon, and the U. A. R.  

Aside from a few barter deals with Eastern European countries, the pattern of trade is triangular and the balance of trade is generally unfavorable to the region. The export markets of the Middle East are (except for oil) largely confined to the Middle East, and the Arab countries, in particular, are the best customers of their Arab neighbors. To this, the United Arab Republic is a notable exception. It has no significant trade with other countries in the Middle East nor does it import significantly from Western Europe and America, as the other countries in the area do. Despite its relative unimportance to the economy of the region, the U. A.R. is the site of the secretariat concerned ith inter-Arab economic cooperation and the Arab Common Market, the members of which are Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait and Egypt.  

Balance of payments problems and attendant local currency difficulties plague the area. These are clearly due to serious mismanagement in the cases of Syria and Iraq, and to a combination of inadequate resources and political adventurism in the case of the U. A. R. 

2. The Middle East as a State of Mind  

There are other ways of viewing the Middle East and other dimensions of its being which may carry important program implications.  

In his stimulating book The Arabs, Jacques Berques cites a definition of the Middle East (attributed to Suhrawardi) as a condition of being suspended between the human and the divine. One need not go the whole distance down the path of poetic mysticism to see the Middle East as a state of mind in which symbolism, poetry and mysticism play major roles. Here, words and signs have a transcendental quality that is quite exceptional, and their function is evocative, rather than descriptive of objectively observed or observable phenomena. This is the state of mind which has produced three of the world's great religions and which has, in turn, been shaped by them and by proximity to their shrines and holy places.  

It is as dangerous as it is difficult to attempt to characterize in a few sentences this special way of viewing the environment and one’s relation to it. Yet it is necessary to make the attempt, for social change and development are in the final analysis psychological, reflecting changes in attitudes and value systems and in turn reacting upon them.  

On some points and some observations there is widespread agreement amongst Western scholars and those Middle Eastern scholars who have come under Western influence. The confusion of objective facts with personalized outlook is said to be pronounced at all levels of society. This is accompanied by a dearth of analytical thinking and of objective observation and evaluation. The real is not what can be seen to exist but that which is willed. The capacity for self-deception is thus almost boundless.  

But while agreement is widespread on the existence of this phenomenon, a variety of explanations are advanced to account for it. Some focus on determinant elements in Islamic or Arabic culture, others on the absence of elements identifiably present in Western culture. Albert Hourani, for example, traces it to the influence of Islam in decline, when "the actions of the believer came to be controlled by a rigid legal system and his mind to be dominated by a dogmatic theology which set limits to the use of reason.”  Or, again, H. B. Sharabi suggests that “a major contributing factor to the near-sterility of objective reason in Arab society may be … the peculiar character and development of the Arabic language as a culture-carrier. Through the centuries form, rather than content, has become the end of expression.”  Others have credited the isolation of the Middle East under the Ottomans from the scientific and technical revolution sweeping Europe, or from the industrial revolution with its day-to-day demonstrations of cause and effect relationships. Few of the explanations are particularly suggestive for programming purposes precisely because there are no single or simple explanations. 

Moreover, this phenomenon and other facets of the state of mind that is the Middle East are not confined to the Arabs. They are not, in other words, primarily expressions of Arabism, but pervade the thinking and outlook of the diverse peoples occupying the semi-arid zone stretching across the top of Africa and well into western Asia. Similar tendencies to regard the symbol as more important than its referent, to prefer form to substance, to eschew objective logic, are said equally to characterize the Persians. In this instance, also, language may be a contributing factor. Persian, like Arabic, is better adapted to poetic than to precise expression. The mind of the Middle East is literary rather than scientific, inspirational rather than operational, intuitive rather than deductive. 

If this is true -- and there is a host of distinguished witnesses to its validity* - it must profoundly affect strategy, the dynamics and the pace of the modernization process and the character of programs designed to facilitate it.  

* As an example from another standpoint, Yusif A. Sayigh in his Economists and Economics in the Arab World observes that "by and large the Arab student avoids topics or approaches requiring a mastery of abstract constructs and models with a large content of mathematics, of advanced statistical technique, or of deductive reasoning…"  

         There are other significant characteristics of what may loosely be called the Middle East mind that would also appear to have relevance, in the design and execution of a program of development and in an understanding of the area. As elsewhere in the East, face and self-esteem are of exceptional importance. An ancient Arab proverb lists the five acts of virtue as:  "Looking into the Koran, looking at the Ka’bah, looking up to one's parents, looking into Zamzam (the sacred well in Mecca), and looking the world in the face.”  In temporal terms, the latter is certainly the most important as a guide to behavior, and the extent to which "face" is an ultimate value goes far to explain the unacceptability of the Johnson plan and all the other Western proposals for resolving the Palestine refugee problem through economic development and expansion. Closely related to this is what Albert Hourani has called the "spirit of feud," stemming from the fierce code of honor of the desert tribes (reflected in both the Old Testament and the Holy Koran), with its emphasis on an eye for an eye and on the ethical centrality of the principle of revenge. The material and pragmatic self-interest so clear to the Western mind is a far weaker motivating force in much of the Middle East than honor (face) or revenge (the spirit of feud). 

Ancient feuds and family and tribal rivalries still play major parts also in the politics of the area and contribute to the instability of governments and political structures. The personal element looms large in part, at least, because of the generally low level of social mobilization. Aside from the highly organized and mobilized confessional groups in Lebanon (always an exception), there are few significant social groupings beyond the family and the clan. D. A. Rustow has pointed to this as the most important single cause of political unrest and instability in the area. "Political and social power is exercised irresponsibly," he says, "since there is no effective representation of interests to support or control the expanded power structure."  Leonard Binder makes a similar point in commenting upon the ability of the military to capture authority by force in Middle Eastern countries. This is, he observes, partly a consequence of their access to weapons and partly due to the low level of social mobilization -- to the disorganization or non-existence of other social groups. The disorganization extends to the administrative services, as well, and civilian governments and political parties are sometimes less effectively competent than the better trained and better organized military.  

3. Program Implications and Possible Priority Targets  

The preceding review is sweeping, selective, inevitably subjective and designed to illustrate an approach to goal selection and to throw up examples for discussion and consideration, rather than to outline firm program objectives at this time. It does point up some major problems and target areas for consideration in terms of priorities, and may point to significant program opportunities and to a possible programming framework. Some of the problems we are already working at in a substantial way. Others we are touching peripherally or not at all. Some are so complex and so deeply rooted in the culture that there may be little that we can hope practically to do about them.  

For purposes of discussion, I would suggest that we focus on five broad target areas. These are presented not as alternatives to the things we are now doing, but as illustrations of different ways of organizing them and thinking about them. We would, for example, continue to be concerned at times with institution building. But this would be in a resource base sense and not as an end in itself.  

Two of the priority areas are recognizable in traditional program terms -- the two sides of the Malthusian coin: expansion of food production and control of population. Both bear directly and fundamentally on living standards and an economic base for development, and powerfully (though less directly) on political stability. We are in relatively good shape regionally in terms of planning, programming and organization for expanded agricultural production. The program is by no means fully launched, but its elements have been identified, its strategy mapped, and its goals determined. Refinement of goals, timetables and evaluative procedures will continue, but the program is solidly based. 

We are in quite a different posture on population control, and little is being done on the problem outside the U. A. R. and (through the Population Council) in Iran. In this field -- difficult as it is for both cultural and political reasons -- we should undertake an activist leadership role. I propose to set up a staff task force to plan strategy and tactics to this end, with the assistance and advice of Mr. Croley, when he comes aboard in Cairo, and perhaps of others from Bud Harkavy's shop. We will, among other things, have to identify and seek out interested or potentially interested individuals in and out of Government, assist in the organization of voluntary associations in the field, help organize and support demographic studies, concern ourselves with the improvement of vital statistics, stimulate relevant forms of social research and training, all preliminary to the formulation of national policy on family planning or to the development of national programs.  

The three other target areas for present consideration and discussion are closely inter-related. In shorthand terms these are:  1) intellectual and functional isolation; 2) patterns and methods of thought; 3) political instability. All present special difficulty.  

For historical, political, religious and linguistic reasons, the Middle East has long suffered a considerable degree of isolation from the rest of the world; and this continues to be the case today. For long years, while the great scientific and intellectual revolutions that have transformed the West were occurring, the area was locked behind the sterile walls of the Ottoman Empire, feeding only on itself and its own past. The brief opening to the West that followed the collapse of the Turks, and particularly the end of the colonial regimes, has now again been narrowed by the political consequences of the existence of Israel and particularly of the June war. The increasing isolation is reflected in proscriptions against study in the United States and other western countries; in a sharp decline in exchange arrangements between Arab universities and those in the west; in restrictions on the importation of western books and periodicals; in restrictions on the travel of intellectuals and professionals; in the "sequestration" of western institutions (American University in Cairo, Al Hikma University in Baghdad) and the expulsion of foreign professors. 

So long as the prevailing political climate continues, it is unlikely that the Foundation can do a great deal to reverse the basic trend. We can, however, take advantage of every opportunity to decrease the isolation, to stimulate dialogue between Middle East and West and amongst the Middle Easterners themselves, particularly on a professional or scientific level and amongst leadership groups. We can -- and should systematically plan to: make the optimum use of high level travel-study awards; assist with salary topping and other devices to provide senior American scholars to institutions in the area who wish to use them; make hard currency available for the purchase of books and periodicals where their exclusion results from a lack of foreign exchange; stimulate and support appropriate conferences on problems of the region or on scholarly topics which will bring Middle Easterners together with their professional or political colleagues from outside; stimulate and support the development of proper scientific, scholarly and professional associations. Finally, an important element in such a program is training in an appropriate western language, not necessarily but preferably English. 

          Even more difficult is a direct attack on those methods of thought described in the early part of this paper. The paucity of analytical thinking and logical reasoning is, of course, most evident in those areas properly the concern of the social sciences. While the physical sciences, as well as the social sciences, are under-developed and have been neglected in the educational system as a whole, there is no evidence to suggest that a substantial improvement in the extent to which logical analysis is applied to social and political problems will result from the training of more physicists or chemists. Wider acquaintance (through the general educational system) with the general concepts of causality and probability might be helpful, but the basic attack on this problem would seem to be through strengthening the social sciences. Here, again, we require a carefully thought-out plan involving training, research, instruction and the development of professional consciousness and morale amongst Arab social scientists. It is proposed to have a staff task force on this problem, as well, to be assisted, perhaps, by Fred Shorter from Ankara and -- on the research side -- by a short-term consultant from the Social Science Research Council. An important element in a comprehensive program in this area has been dealt with in Roy Jumper's paper, "Faculty Research Fellowships for the Study of Economics, Political Science and Sociology in the Middle East."  Consideration should also be given to the modernization of the Arabic language. 

          Finally, some scattered thoughts on possible programmatic approaches to the basic problem of political instability. This, too, is a composite problem or cluster of problems. Significant contributing elements would seem to be:  1) the extremely low level of social mobilization, making politics a parlor game of intrigue played by a few leading families or military figures;  2) imperfect perception and acceptance of the importance of the rule of law, particularly in its constitutional aspects;  3) lack of executive capacity to deliver expected and required services or even to maintain the security of the State;  4) lack of training and experience among political leaders, parliamentarians and diplomats. Other elements could be listed but these are certainly among the most important.  Perhaps mention should also be made of the tensions inherent in a political order comprising a number of too-small, artificially created governmental structures. 

Obviously, the Foundation cannot hope to play a dominant role in increasing political stability in the Middle East. However, we can shape our programs and focus our efforts in directions that will contribute to the emergence of conditions more favorable to political stability (though not the status quo: in a form conducive to change). We can, in a limited way, encourage a larger degree of social mobilization through efforts to encourage the growth of associations of intellectuals, professionals and other opinion makers. We can encourage and support research by local scholars on problems of political organization. As we begin to focus on the issue, other possibilities will come to mind. One of the most hopeful would seem to be the private business sector, where one exists. 

We are already launched on a program concerned with the development of law and the concept of the rule of law. We need to broaden this program considerably and to plot its development a number of years ahead. The forthcoming conference on law and development should be followed next year by one on the problems of fundamental or constitutional law in the area. In addition for improving the teaching of law and the training of new lawyers (as at Lebanese University), we need to find ways of working with the legal profession as a whole. 

We have, for a number of years, recognized and been working at the problem of executive capacity of governments in the area. The time has come for a careful evaluation of what has been accomplished and what still remains to be done. Administrative reform and improvement can go on forever and we are faced in this sector with a particularly difficult problem of determining priorities and the point at which cost-benefit ratios suggest we should put our efforts elsewhere. 

Except for the regional training course for Arab diplomats and the sessions of the Executive Conference Program (U.A.R.), which have attracted Ministers and Deputy Ministers, little has thus far been done with political or quasi-political groups. There are opportunities that should be explored for conferences both of the "Bilderbeug" type and of parliamentarians. We should also remain alert to appropriate conferences in the U. S. which might be of interest to particular political figures, and New York should be requested to keep us informed of any that come to their attention. 

The above program suggestions are sketchy and half-baked. I hope they will serve to stimulate discussion that will lead to their sharpening. 

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