“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…"
Written in 1859, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, Charles Dickens opened A Tale of Two Cities with that famous quotation.
Over 150 years later and I can’t help feeling that those same dichotomies encapsulate the Middle East and North Africa region rather well.
It got me thinking. If I was writing a similar novel today, it wouldn’t be called A Tale of Two Cities, it would be called A Tale of Twenty-Two Cities…and it would be set in the Arab world.
But what direction would the narrative take? Would it be a tale of boom? Or a tale of doom?
I was interested to read in the program that the “common narrative” often paints the “political and socio-economic woes as an inexorable reality for the Arab world. That Arabs then find themselves confined in a self-reinforcing cycle of sufferings and resilient issues that seem unavoidable, if only because they’ve been here with us all the time.”
It pains me to say but… it’s true. There are too many people – within and out-with the region – who only see “the worst of times”… the “season of Darkness”. Who look at our region with a ‘glass-half-empty’ attitude.
They lament the slow pace of reform. They blame conflicts and insecurities for costing us steady investments and flows of tourists.
They bemoan the threat of environmental ruin… claims that our region faces the world’s highest levels of food and water scarcity…and predictions that Sana’a will be the first capital in the world to run out of water.
They bewail the highest youth unemployment in the world. The region needs to create 75 million jobs by 2020. And the lowest rates of female participation in the workforce. Only 1 in 5 women are employed compared to 1 in 2 globally.
They compare our levels of innovation and creativity with others…and cite this year’s Human Development Report. A 6 country average shows that about 10 per million people are granted patents in the Arab states versus around 600 per million in countries with higher human development indicators.
They point out the skills mismatch with the labour force. According to the World Bank, 40% of firms surveyed in MENA cite “inadequate education” as a major constraint to their businesses. Yet, ironically, the percentage of Arab firms offering training -- which could offset that challenge -- is the lowest in the world!
The narrative of discontent continues with talk of rising inequalities…and economic growth that doesn’t reach the majority.
They’re right to be alarmed. I’m not going to stand here and say otherwise. There’s no disputing these facts. They represent huge, serious and urgent challenges. But, as the saying goes, “If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got.”
Pessimism doesn’t change the reality; it prolongs the status quo. And it brings everyone down. It’s only ever lose-lose.
Optimism and faith coupled with pragmatism change the reality. Self-belief and self-reliance change the reality. Boldness to explore new ideas changes the reality. A vision powered by effort and energy changes the reality.
That’s what excites me about the conversation this weekend…and all of you. You’re pro-active. Your sights are set on solutions.
Ladies and gentlemen, an alternative narrative is in our hands. A narrative of hope for a brave, new Arab world. Its central theme is confidence. It debuts bold role models. It showcases exciting results.
I know. Because every day, I meet amazing young people who believe in their own potential and the potential of the Arab world.
The Arab Youth Survey shows us that young people want to make a difference in their communities. They’re more positive even than their western peers. Over a third define ‘success’ as making the world a better place. Over 50% of youth in the Middle East think their countries are heading in the right direction.
They envision a future where strong economic growth spurs opportunity for all. And where incremental and inclusive political reform create moderate, democratic governments that give young people a say in their futures.
They’re excited and empowered by being part of the largest youth cohort in the world.
They believe that our region can be a hub for creative industries…ICT companies …solar power production and research. They know that e-commerce is growing faster there than anywhere else in the world.
Most important… they’re not sitting around waiting for people to help them. No; they’re helping themselves. They’re writing their own stories.
Arab entrepreneurs are growing micro, small and medium enterprises that supply up to 99% of private sector jobs in some Arab countries. The 2009 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor noted that young Arabs were more likely than those in other regions to start up a business. In fact, amongst the working population, there’s higher rates of entrepreneurial activity than the US, Germany, UK or Japan.
People like…Jordan’s Ala’ Alsallal. Inspired by computers and books, he founded Jamalon, the Amazon of the Middle East. Today, he’s on his way to being the number one online book seller in the region.
Or the influential film-maker, Tamer Shabaan…he’s best known for his video montage about the start of the Egyptian Revolution that made the world aware of the Egyptian people’s discontent.
Or Zaina Saab. Determined to reverse Lebanon’s brain drain, this MIT graduate moved back to Beirut to found the Nawaya Network -- an NGO that connects disadvantaged youth with financial, material and educational resources.
Or the thousands of other dynamic, idealistic and ambitious young Arabs who understand that their region is on the threshold of change. And that now is the time to capitalize on the energy and emerging opportunities.
For my part, I want to capitalize on this time of transition by focusing on education. It’s not a panacea for all our ills. But, done well, done creatively, it can positively impact many of the social, political and economic challenges our region faces.
Why? Because education is a great equalizer. Perhaps, the greatest equalizer.
Each one of us is born into circumstances beyond our control: rich/poor… urban/rural… conservative/liberal. But if we can give all our children equitable opportunities, early in life and, especially, in the classroom, then we can level the playing field.
I’ll be the first to tell you that that’s sometimes easier said than done. In Jordan, education reform, from early childhood to university, has been challenging. Limited resources and the refugee crisis have slowed the pace of change. We haven’t been able to build the schools we want …train as many teachers as we need… or overhaul curricula as fast as we’d like.
But what we do have at our fingertips are new and evolving opportunities. Tools and technologies that are as inexpensive as they are accessible…and can complement traditional methods – across the region.
Many of you will be familiar with Massive Open Online Courses. They’re high quality online courses taught to a large number of learners who may or may not be university students. Typically, students watch short video lectures…complete assignments…and can earn certificates.
They’re flexible and free-of-charge… diverse and inclusive. But up until now, they’ve mostly been available in English -- excluding large numbers of Arab youth.
I’m pleased to tell you today… that thanks to a dynamic new partnership between edX, a Harvard-MIT consortium, and my foundation in Jordan… that’s set to change.
By leveraging edX’s technology and tapping the best of our regional talent and Arab diaspora, we’re proud that we will be launching a MOOCS platform for the Arab world - Edraak.
Engaging...fresh… relevant and, most important, in Arabic, MOOCS will open up a world of possibility for intellectually hungry Arab youth.
MOOCS can be – and will be -- a great asset in the education reform toolbox. They can transform learning in the Arab world. Not only will our online courses broadcast the best Arab professors, they will encourage brilliant Arab minds abroad to generate Arabic content. And more, they’ll be a platform for smart Arab professionals to share their expertise.
So, I have an ask. Those brilliant Arab minds I mentioned? That’s you! And your tutors… your lecturers…your Arab heroes. I want you to be part of this revolution.
Are their technical glitches? Yes, there are. Will it be smooth? Probably not. But those who subscribe to the narrative of hope agree with Bill Gates, who said of MOOCS, “I’d be the first to say that this is a period of experimentation, but we’ll learn much faster if we jump in and engage.”
That’s the positive spirit that we need in the Arab world today across all sectors: education....health…technology…tourism…the environment. That’s how we write an alternative narrative. And you – dynamic, young, talented Arab youth -- can lead the way.
Yes, change and upheaval erupted out of the Arab Spring… but so did promise and potential. Whether you are in Boston or Beirut, it’s not just about coming back, it’s about giving back. Because our region needs you more than ever.
Together, our Tale of Twenty-Two Cities can be a tale of boom. It can usher in “the best of times”… “the age of wisdom”… “the epoch of belief”… “the season of Light”… and the “spring of hope”.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have “everything before us” in the Arab world… if we only open our eyes.
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.