Arab Economic and Social Development meeting: A summit mired in controversy

Flags of the Arab league states are seen on display ahead of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut on Jan. 17. (AFP)
Updated 31 May 2019

Arab Economic and Social Development meeting: A summit mired in controversy

  • Arab politicians and leaders are meeting in Beirut to discuss economic and social development
  • The meeting is overshadowed by disputes over Syria and Libya and a political crisis in Lebanon itself

BEIRUT: The plan was that heads of state from the Arab world would arrive in Beirut to discuss economic and social development. But like much in Lebanon at the moment, it did not go according to plan.

To begin with, only two heads of state — from Qatar and Mauritania — are attending the Arab Economic and Social Development summit. The meeting, which Lebanon had hoped would boost its sinking economic credentials as it struggles to form a government, has been mired in controversy for days.

Should Syria be invited? Yes, said Hezbollah and its political allies in Lebanon. No, said the Arab League.

Then a debate raged over whether Libya should receive an invitation, because of the unresolved mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Lebanese cleric in Libya four decades ago. In the end Libya boycotted the summit after Lebanese supporters of the cleric tore down a Libyan flag on a Beirut street.

Nevertheless, the summit’s media spokesman Rafic Chlala told Arab News: “The presidents who decided not to attend the summit have sent their delegates, which means the summit hasn’t failed, as some are trying to portray it.”

The delegates have much to discuss. According to the Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Houssam Zaki, there is no dispute about the items on the agenda.

They include “Arab food security, the development of an Arab Free Trade Zone, the completion of the requirements to establish the Arab Customs Union, the Arab strategy on Sustainable Development 2030, launching the work to establish the joint Arab electricity market, the strategic vision to promote and activate joint Arab work between the tourism and culture sectors in Arab states, managing solid waste in the Arab world and developing policies that deal with Arab women’s affairs and promotion of their capacities.”

The agenda also includes ”supporting the Palestinian economy and Arab strategy to protect children and promote technical and vocational education in the Arab world, and addressing the challenges facing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and their consequences  on the Palestinian refugees.”

The issues are supposed to be economic and social, but the fallout from the Syrian civil war will inevitably dominate. Discussions took place on Saturday about a proposed Lebanese addition to the final communique calling for “the dignified return of refugees to Syria.”

Minister of Economy Raed Khoury told Arab News: “Lebanon is demanding the encouragement of the safe return of refugees to the safe zones. Some countries were rooting for the ‘voluntary return,’ while some wanted to delete the whole paragraph, on the grounds that it is a political and not an economic matter that should be discussed during the next regular Arab summit that will be held in late March, in Tunisia.”

Lebanon is currently home to more than a million refugees, which is, according to Khoury, “a huge burden on the Lebanese economy and the social situation.”

During the summit, Lebanese President Michel Aoun is expected to launch an initiative on “the development of a funding structure to rebuild Arab states that have witnessed armed conflicts.”

The assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League, Haifa Abou Ghazaleh, said: “The Beirut summit is very important as it is being held only few months before the World Sustainable Development Summit.

“Arab states have committed to implementing the 2030 sustainable development plan, with its economic, social and environmental aspects, and the Beirut summit provides an important opportunity to promote development in Arab states, by combining knowledge, youth and wealth.

“This combination gives the Arab community a great and strong chance for a new beginning, to shift toward knowledge economies. This is what we are all seeking, to build a knowledge society, turning the massive capacities, natural resources, human potential and knowledge-based wealth in the region into a base to develop social integration and cohesion, in order to reach sustainable development that will promote Arabs’ wellbeing.”

The discussions of the Arab Civil Society Forum in Beirut, which preceded the summit, indicated that the “Arab region is witnessing the highest levels in income inequality around the world, where 10 percent of its population is making 61 percent of the total income, while half of the population is only making 10 percent of it, despite the wealth of resources in the region.”

The forum called on Sunday’s summit to “adopt economic and social policies to reduce inequality in all its forms through the redistribution of wealth.”

According to the Arab League, “a strategic framework developed by the Council of Arab Ministers for Social Affairs, regarding  the elimination of multidimensional poverty” will be suggested at the summit.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun is expected to launch an initiative on reconstruction in Arab states affected by armed conflict. (AFP)

The League estimates that the number of poor people in Arab states reached 116 million in 2014.

While the issues are weighty, the view on the Beirut street is unconvinced. “Lebanon is the king of missed opportunities,” Jihad Jrab, a bank manager told Arab News. “We had the opportunity of making our image look better, especially in these trying times, so that these visiting leaders would come and give the proper attention needed to the citizens of this country. It was evident that they did all they can to not gain
this attention.”

Bassam Jrab, Jihad’s cousin and an engineer in Lebanon, said: “In order to attract people to invest in the country you need to present a solid front … to show that there is security, that there is a working government, and a respectable presidency. 

 “You have a president who invited a country to attend the summit, then an employee of the government comes and forbids it from happening, what message does this convey? That there is a strong president? Or a chair’s leg?”

Lebanon has invested $10 million in hosting the summit, with an increase in security staff and the closure of streets, schools and public institutions. Nevertheless, many Lebanese questioned the country’s ability to host the summit, after eight months without a government and a looming economic crisis. Over the past couple of weeks, two storms hit the country, tore apart its infrastructure and left refugee camps flooded.

“They spend all this money on hosting a summit, while our homes are getting flooded and roads being pulled apart by these storms. Wouldn’t it be better to use the money to help the citizens?” shop-owner Omar Itani said.

There was frustration on social media. “I wish one day you [politicians] would think about the country’s benefit and see how to rescue what’s left of our dignity,” Hayat Gharzeddine tweeted. “Shame on you, such an embarrassment.”

Others were openly apathetic. “I don’t even know what the summit is about,” film maker Sandra Tabet said. “I’ve asked so many people and no one really seems to know or care.”


Arab Economic and Social Development summits

The Arab Economic and Social Development summits are meetings of the Arab League, held at the head of state level to address issues of economic and social development among member states.

Cairo turns to Tokyo for a lesson on education

Updated 22 August 2019

Cairo turns to Tokyo for a lesson on education

  • The Japanese education system is recognized as one of the top five worldwide

CAIRO: Egypt is seeking Japan’s help to improve its education system, which has fallen to 130th place in international rankings.

The Japanese education system is recognized as one of the top five worldwide, and Cairo is hoping to apply key aspects of Japan’s approach to the Egyptian curriculum.

Education has played a major role in transforming Japan from a feudal state receiving aid following World War II to a modern economic powerhouse. 

During a visit to Japan in 2016, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi discussed political and economic development with Japanese officials, and was also briefed on the Japanese education system.

The Egyptian leader visited Japanese schools and called on Japan to help Egypt introduce a similar system in its schools.  

As part of Egyptian-Japanese cooperation, Japan’s embassy established cultural cooperation as well as technical and professional education links between the two countries. Collaboration has been strengthened from kindergarten to post-university, with Japanese experts contributing in various education fields.

Japanese experts have held seminars in schools across the country, focusing on basic education. 

During one seminar, Japan highlighted the importance of enhancing education by playing games during kindergarten and primary school, encouraging children’s ability and desire to explore.  

Education expert Ola El-Hazeq told Arab News that the Japanese system focuses on developing students’ sense of collective worth and responsibility toward society. This starts with their surrounding environment by taking care of school buildings, educational equipment and school furniture, for example.

“Japanese schools are known for being clean,” El-Hazeq said. “The first thing that surprises a school visitor is finding sneakers placed neatly in a locker or on wooden shelves at the school entrance. Each sneaker has its owner’s name on it. This is a habit picked up at most primary and intermediate schools as well as in many high schools.”

Japanese students also clean their classrooms, collect leaves that have fallen in the playground and take out the garbage. In many cases, teachers join students to clean up schools and also public gardens and beaches during the summer holidays.

El-Hazeq added that neither the teachers nor the students find it beneath their dignity to carry out such chores.

The academic year in Japan continues for almost 11 months, different from most other countries, with the Japanese academic year starting on April 1 and ending on March 31 the following year.

Japan’s school days and hours are relatively longer in comparison with other countries. Usually the school day is from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Teachers normally work until 5 p.m. but sometimes up to 7 p.m. Holidays are shorter than in other countries. Spring and winter holidays are no longer than 10 days, and the summer holiday ranges from 40 to 45 days.