(MENAFN - Arab News) When it comes to GCC issues, our guest is an expert who says it like it is. Dr. Ali Fakhro from Bahrain has had a diverse career as a doctor, a minister of health, a minister of education, and an ambassador. He writes and lectures extensively on political, economic, and intellectual issues.
The state of education in GCC countries, the state of the economy, the need for comprehensive strategic thinking, and the harmful adherence to globalized neoliberalism are among the most prominent issues he's concerned with. Dr. Fakhro spoke to Arwa Al-Rikabi of the Arab News in an exclusive interview.
Let's start with insight into when you became politically aware. How did that come about?
I first became politically aware when I was a student in secondary school in 1947. I encouraged other students to join in the anti-Zionist demonstrations in Bahrain, mainly to protest the expulsion of Palestinians from their home. I remember I stood on an oil barrel in the school courtyard and gave my first public speech. I haven't left politics since.
Tell us about your most significant achievements as minister of health and minister of education in Bahrain?
I was in the Health Ministry from 1970 to 1982 and in that time we made some significant changes.
When I first started, the ministry consisted of mostly foreign staff including doctors and nurses. When I left the ministry it was fully staffed with Bahrainis. We established the College of Health Sciences, the first of its kind in the Arab world, to train nurses and health technicians. This was a key step in accelerating the Bahrainization of ministry staff. We prioritized public health services and preventive programs resulting in the elimination of malaria, typhoid and dysentery as well as the reduction of infectious childhood diseases by more than two-thirds. We prioritized primary health care by establishing health centers within three kilometers of every citizen's home.
We established the College of Medicine as part of the Arabian Gulf University.
We initiated the Education and Training Program for family doctors, the first of its kind in the Arab world.
We proposed the establishment of the Arab Board of Health Specializations to the Health Ministers' Council for GCC states and proceeded to win the approval of Arab health ministers. I was eventually appointed chair of the board and its executive committee for 15 years. As minister of education from 1982 to 1995, I also made significant achievements.
We established the first national university in Bahrain. We contributed to the establishment of the Arabian Gulf University, which is the regional university for GCC states.
We started the first BA program in the Arab world graduating qualified teachers for elementary school level. We granted the Bahrain University scholarship to all primary school teachers holding a high school degree in order to study for four to five years. They received full pay during their study period. After that a Bachelor's degree became the minimum teaching requirement for any study level, and teaching became a respected profession in our society.
We applied the credit hours system in high schools. Students sat exams at the end of each year that counted toward their final certificate, rather than having one exam at the end of the three years. This improved student assessment and examination systems in the ministry. We applied the independent school system, governed by a principal and a council including teachers who are elected annually by their colleagues and account for half of the council membership.
The two ministries were managed by a committee and chaired by the minister. They included senior officials, specialists and consultants, and this resulted in a democratic, consultative and cooperative system.
What are the major obstacles facing institutional reform in GCC governments?
There are many obstacles including bureaucracy and corruption, a lack of transparency in public life and the hiring of ministers and senior officials based on loyalty rather than qualifications and ability. Other obstacles include the absence of institutional principles and systems, strife with personal, class, tribal, and interest relations. Sometimes the public feels ministries are the property of senior officials. The absence of accountability to civil and democratic institutions as well as the rise of tribal, sectarian and family relations because of the absence of citizenship values has created hurdles. Finally, a major obstacle is the deep-rooted concept of relations based primarily on customers and mutual interest rather than on reward for effort.
You have written extensively on globalized capitalism. How do neoliberal principles as well as the dictates of institutions like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank influence GCC economies and their development?
The issue of neoliberalism that has ruled the journey of globalized capitalism for the past three decades through these institutions and others both local and foreign is a complex one. The worst aspect is the blind faith in the ability of the market to manage and correct itself without any intervention from the state. This proved to be false after a series of globalized financial and economic crises, particularly the 2008 crisis, which is still ongoing. In addition, this type of liberalism believes in reducing the state's role in economy and services to risky limits resulting in a declining middle class, making the poor even poorer and the rich even richer. It is antagonistic towards trade unions and pushes for limiting union negotiation capacity. It is predominantly a culture of insatiable commodity consumption, which forces the individual into debt or bankruptcy. It is against any protection or support from the state for new national industries and institutions.
These convictions adopted in various forms by the GCC distorted the economy of these countries.
How would you characterize the growth and development of the GCC states? Is it on the right track? What are the major downfalls?
Development in the GCC states has been described as "feudal-like" for many reasons. First, GCC countries did not focus on building productive and knowledge economies, but rather on consumerist economies. They also indulged in real estate and stock speculation, negatively affecting many people. The belief in reducing the role of the state has resulted in a decrease in state involvement in the provision of basic services such as health, education, employment, housing and social welfare, through direct or indirect privatization. In order to keep up with globalization, a large portion of oil revenue was spent on building luxurious homes to attract wealthy foreigners to our cities as well as attracting money laundering for real estate speculation. It was necessary to recruit millions of foreign workers, a fact that will adversely affect the region's identity as well as civil peace in the future. GCC states recruit foreign workers but fail to provide high-level education and training for its own citizens to eventually replace them. As a result, the rate of unemployed GCC citizens has gradually increased while the number of foreigners continues to rise.
In his book "The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Has Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many, and Endangered the Planet," Richard Douthwaite states economic growth is not necessarily good and there is a kind of cancerous growth which, in his opinion, is happening in developing and even developed countries. He names neoliberal policies as the main culprit. Do you agree with these statements? Do you see GCC countries following this path?
I've touched on aspects of this question, so let's focus on the type of economic growth discussed.
The famous Club of Rome or global think tank addressed the issue of economic growth limit in a well-known book called "Growth Limit." It caused uproar in capitalist circles because it highlighted the earth's limited resources and concluded it would be impossible to sustain infinite capitalist growth. The necessity of annual expansion for any capitalist institution in terms of production or services is at the heart of the capitalist system. This is where the need for advertising becomes evident. Societies are persuaded to endlessly consume every material and non-material product the capitalist machine produces. This is why the idea of a positive balance of supply and demand in the market is consistently supported despite being refuted in many studies.
For example, the permanent growth theory is evident in the construction policies of GCC countries. Large portions of oil revenue surplus have been used to construct hundreds of thousands of homes for property speculation and to house millions of foreigners, rather than building knowledge and productive economies. This is cancerous growth and it has dangerous social, cultural and environmental repercussions without any developmental goal or benefit. It creates a parasitic economy that wastes the saving rather than channeling it toward long-term and sustainable developmental goals.
In the Gulf region, this type of growth emerges from the incorrect view, which perceives our societies as labor camps rather than human communities with needs beyond the spiritual, psychological, and emotional. Finally, this continuous growth or increasing oil and gas production to meet the needs of the globalized capitalist machine rather than the real needs of our community is considered cancerous and will destroy the wealth of our future generations.
Following the events of the 1990 Gulf War and 9/11, many cultural and social changes occurred in the Gulf region. What do you think of the aftermath of these events? Do you believe these changes are in our societies' best interest?
These two events were earthquakes in the region. On one hand, we had the bloody Gulf War between Iraq and Iran, the insane occupation of Kuwait, and the occupation of Iraq and destruction of its infrastructure. On the other hand, there was the tragic event of 9/11, which turned American politics upside down. These events led primarily to political and security consequences, which in turn produced cultural and social complications.
All of a sudden, the political and sectarian culture in the region stirred with historical disagreements between Iran and Gulf Arab states. We started to hear insults exchanged, accusations of racial supremacy, revivals of historical conflicts between Ottomans and Safavids, the dredging up of jurisprudential differences between Sunnis and Shiites, and even doubts about the introduction of Islam to Iran in order to portray it as a racial military operation rather than a process of divine guidance and acceptance of Islam. The result was a split within GCC society at an individual, family and academic level, which scarred a long history of harmony and Islamic Arab brotherhood. At the same time, the issue of terrorism became a governmental and social preoccupation. This resulted in human rights trespasses as well as raising cultural debates that are still going on around topics such as jihad, martyrdom, suicide and crime. It caused confusion among people and distracted from concentrating on national, collective and democratic projects and delayed the transition from a world of subnational loyalties to national and Islamic loyalties.
It weakened attempts at peaceful coexistence and collaboration between the two Gulf banks, Arab and Iranian. It also paved the way for foreign media to benefit from and use our disagreements to justify the return of foreign power and hegemony into our homeland.
You wrote about the compliance of Arab regimes with the requirements of globalization, particularly the insistence on states to relinquish their social responsibilities like privatizing education. How does this impact education, its philosophy and ultimately the type of human being it produces?
Reducing the role of the state is at the heart of the neoliberal capitalist ideology dominating the globalized world. The privatization of schools and universities has spread dramatically. These institutions tend to focus on providing a qualified and efficient workforce to the globalized market including its institutions, transnational companies, local agents, and rapidly changing technical and consumptive trends.
These requirements suit markets but not societies. Therefore, they are not concerned with the cultural aspect of the human being such as history, religion, native language, literature, philosophy, arts and national education. Rather, they are concerned with cognitive, technical, professional and behavioral aspects, producing people who are suitable for functioning as a part of the service, cognitive, financial and production machine.
As a result, private schools and universities focus on teaching global languages at the expense of the Arabic language, in addition to favoring technical aspects over humanistic and national culture. They also foster individualism at the expense of loyalty to homeland, identity and community.
Gradually, even government education ministries started to apply the same system in their schools and universities, resulting in the domination of global languages and decreasing public culture.
The result is the emergence of a generation linguistically incapable of reading and understanding the religious and cultural heritage, a generation engrossed in consumptive and technological endeavors, who feels loyalty towards the institution he works in rather than his community.
We began to recognize two types of graduates, the public school graduate and the private school graduate. Every day the gap between them grows wider and social cohesion weakens, creating two different worlds alongside each other and at times contradicting each other. Ultimately the mother language and the culture of one Ummah, a product of centuries and engraved in peoples' hearts and minds, will shrivel. We are facing a catastrophe.
Do you see flaws in the strategic thinking and planning of GCC countries, like how decisions and solutions are often temporary and cosmetic? What is the reason for this? How can it be changed?
Strategic thinking and planning needs to be strategized by specialists deemed trustworthy and who are governed by the political regime. These specialists need accurate information, which cannot be obtained unless there is transparency in the government. Both aspects are absent in our countries. Decisions are usually made individually and are not based on knowledge or on institutions. If and when institutions and not individuals make decisions and we create an accountability system to monitor the decision-making process, only then will we start to walk the path of strategic thinking and planning.
How can the GCC become more effective and develop a shared vision between its members? Is this possible?
It is possible if each member state understands it has to compromise part of its national sovereignty to produce an effective GCC. The council cannot be active as long as its decisions have to be unanimous. The GCC, including summits, still acts like a consultative entity rather than a legislative one.
The council's procedure pace is very slow. It took 25 years to get to an incomplete and incomprehensive customs union. If member states considered the GCC essential they would have a GCC minister in each country's cabinet. The council does not have a common vision regarding significant matters such as foreign policy, Gulf security, and internal reforms.
Could the GCC achieve economic autonomy with the US-dominated global economy? In your opinion, what are the obstacles and necessary steps towards such autonomy?
There are requirements for independence, even a partial one. It is impossible to have economic independence in the absence of political autonomy, as there are systems that survive on American satisfaction and support. There is also the issue of cutting US dollar dependence, which requires the GCC states to agree to develop a strong basket of currencies from countries with reliable economies. GCC countries should reject recycling oil revenue solely to help or save a Western state or economic institution, operate US arms factories or reduce unemployment in the West. In a nutshell, there is a need for national and independent will, one that is not confrontational and deals with globalization in terms of Gulf and Arab interests.
Do you think public education in GCC states is inferior to private education? What is the reason for this? How does it affect the social fabric?
We cannot make that generalization because some private schools are better than public schools while others are worse. In my opinion, comparisons do not work. We need an in-depth treatment of the problem. The problem is the oil-rich Gulf states have failed miserably when it comes to education. Yes they established schools and almost eradicated illiteracy, but they have not been able to provide high quality education.
The reason is political regimes are afraid of efficient education or education that produces rational individuals able to analyze and think independently. Throughout history authoritarian regimes feared education and knowledge, since it brought with it struggles and demands.
On the other hand, the ideology of globalization has persuaded GCC states to abandon their social duties and privatize services, in particular health and education. The result was an explosion in the number of private schools and universities.
This would not be a problem if the state raised the level of government education to the best rather than allowing it to lag behind private education.
All this led us to the point of social disaster. The poor are educated in government schools, which are incompetent. When they graduate, they work at low-status jobs and remain in poverty. The rich go to private schools, get a better education, and take over high status positions resulting in low social mobility.
There is also a lack of governmental supervision of private education in terms of making sure students are proficient in the Arabic language and have a good Islamic and cultural background that preserves their identity. As a result, private schools produce students who lack Arabic language proficiency, are westernized, and have a low commitment to Islam and to their national identity. What a disaster!