Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Let's not become like Dubai - put education first!

Suffering from a seemingly hopeless case of paralysis, politics in Iraq must go on and look toward the future. Months after the elections in March 2010, and a government is yet waiting to materialize out of the tensions and contradictions that are the growing pains of this youthful constitutional democracy. May we hope to see a government emerge soon, one that is committed to peace, enlightenment, and independence from the West. 

Meanwhile, dreams and visions for a future and prosperous Iraq thrive in the minds of thousands of men and women, both within and outside of Iraq's border, dispersed across the globe in a diaspora that is hopeful, with or without the patience required for rebuilding a nation and restoring grandeur to what was once the cradle of civilization. 

With or without government, the question about what kind of Iraq we wish for the future is a pressing one, for many competing visions exist. The future of Iraq lies in the hands of the resources, of course oil and natural gas, around which the US and multinational oil companies have been circling like a vultures since the failed Hydrocarbon Law talks in 2007

Once a law is in place, it is of the utmost importance that a national revenue sharing scheme becomes the focus of any "deals" with multinational oil companies, eagerly waiting to "help develop" Iraq's untapped oil fields. An expansion of Iraq's public sector, and investments in the national infrastructure must be a top priority since oil, as we know, will one day run out, and many countries, particularly in Europe, are moving toward alternative and renewable energy sources. 

A similar problem with the inescapable finiteness of oil is on the consciousness of the Arab Gulf states, the UAE being perhaps the most notable example. Realizing that oil will not last forever, the UAE began to take measures in the 1980s to ensure that when the day the land was dry of oil, the country would still maintain means of self-determination, financially and politically. 

What can we learn from the Gulf states and the UAE? The answer is at once NOTHING and EVERYTHING. 

The UAE, with its pride Dubai, is somewhat of a golden child of the west, and the subject of mixed admiration and envy from many of its less well-off Arab neighbors. Once an empty spread of desert and a few fishing villages, the city of Dubai has become a metropolis of trade, hospitality, and financial services. We've heard it all before, the story is repeated with pride by the Emirati tourist authorities themselves. 

But the UAE success story is not only the story of luxury hotels, 6 star hospitality, golf courses and indoor ski slopes, it is the story of oppression, inequality, injustice, intolerance, and authoritarianism. Thousands of "guest workers" who live in labor camps are silenced in their inhumane treatment and working conditions, building new hotels and luxury apartment blocks for the well-heeled Westerners and Arabs who have become deaf to their moral consciousness and compassionate hearts. These workers, who give their lives, are never awarded citizenship, and may never receive any rights in countries where they have worked for decades. 

The crimes against humanity committed in the UAE are pardoned in the West by a twisted neoliberal ideology of happy capitalism and conspicuous consumption, carried literally on the shoulders of thousands of Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, and Ethiopians who may never dream of a share in the golden city they have been building for years. The Emiratis themselves denounce any criticism as double standards from the West, they may be right, but their hearts are tainted with a consciousness that only the deepest compassion and immediate political reform can ever hope to redeem.  

While the UAE may think that its key to surviving in a competitive global market lies in its ability to attract Western investment, it has done nothing but created a playground for unleashed capitalism, as crude as the oil on which it feeds. The Emiratis themselves, a minority of the actual population remain useless and incapable of managing their own country. A process of "Emiratisation" has begun, whereby foreign companies are forced to hire a portion of Emirati nationals (almost like interns), is designed to tackle this problem, but the Western companies themselves are not impressed.

With the effects of the Global Finacial Crisis, the future of the UAE may already have been written. It is a gloomy one, where the circus of Western enterprise leaves the region, abandoning the Emiratis fend for themselves, uneducated and incapable; spoiled like rich children.

The future of Iraq must rest on future generations in a world where the foundations of turbo capitalism are beginning to rumble, in the wake of financial crises and a heightened awareness of the dangers and instability of free market reform and policy.

The future lies in education. Where the UAE erected luxury hotels that topped the charts of conspicuous living and indulgence for the rich, Iraq should erect public universities; state of the art facilities to foster enlightenment and reflection, research and exploration, all with the integrity of peace and independence from the West. In the future, Iraq may be known as a hub, not of financial services, fake waterfalls and fountains or the world's tallest buildings, but of universities, open to all.  

The revenue coming from the resources of the country must be invested in long-term goals to turn the region into a thriving educational and cultural center, actively at the forefront of diverse learning and research. The universities would not be modeled on the American principle of restricted access, with tuition fees and selective scholarships, but would be, as the new constitution guarantees, "free to all, in all its stages" (Article 34). The universities would attract researchers and scholars from the Middle East region, and from the world more broadly, helping rebuild the nation and restore onto the region its lost cultural and educational heritage. 

The universities would play a pivotal role in the constitutional and democratic development of Iraq, more so than the army, they would serve as the safeguards of peace and enlightenment, and would ensure the continued stability of this ethnically diverse part of the world. 

May we hope that the future government realizes the centrality of education, not only as a guaranteed right for its people, but as the most valuable of all long-term national investments. 


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