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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Courageous Arab Thinkers

I should have known something was up when a Saudi diplomat recently asked me, "Do you know what kind of woman is most sought after as a wife by Saudi men today?" No, I said, what kind? "A woman with a job."

I thought of that when I read last week's announcement that within a year Saudi Arabia would conduct its first real elections -- for municipal councils. Most people thought it would snow in Saudi Arabia before there would be elections. So what's up?

What's up are three big shocks hammering the Arab system. First, with oil revenues flat, there isn't enough money anymore to buy off, or provide jobs for, the exploding Arab populations. Hence the growing need for wives with work. The second is the Iraq war shock. Even with all the problems in Baghdad now, virtually every autocratic Arab regime is starting to prepare for the uncomfortable possibility that by 2005 Iraq will hold a free election, which will shame all those who never have. As Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president, likes to say, "One good example is worth a thousand theories." Iraq -- maybe -- could be that example.

But there is another tremor shaking the Arab world. This one is being set off by a group of courageous Arab social scientists, who decided, with the help of the United Nations, to begin fighting the war of ideas for the Arab future by detailing just how far the Arab world has fallen behind and by laying out a progressive pathway forward. Their first publication, the Arab Human Development Report 2002, explained how the deficits of freedom, education and women's empowerment in the Arab world have left the region so behind that the combined GDP of the 22 Arab states was less than that of a single country -- Spain. Even with limited Internet access in the Arab world, 1 million copies of this report were downloaded, sparking internal debates.

Monday, in Amman, Jordan, these Arab thinkers are to unveil their second Arab Human Development Report, which focuses on the need to rebuild Arab "knowledge societies." The report is embargoed until Monday, but from talking with the authors I sense it will be another bombshell.

Those who worked on this report do not believe in the Iraq-war model of political change. They prefer evolution from within. But they believe there must be serious change. They are convinced that Islam has a long history of absorbing knowledge. But in the modern era an unholy alliance between repressive Arab regimes and certain conservative Muslim scholars has led to the domination of certain interpretations of Islam that serve the governments but are hostile to human development -- particularly freedom of thought, women's empowerment and the accountability of governments to their people.

The result? There are just 18 computers per 1,000 people in the Arab region today, compared with the global average of 78.3 per 1,000, and only 1.6 percent of the Arab population has Internet access. In 1995-96 alone, 25 percent of all graduates from Arab universities with B.A. degrees emigrated, while 15,000 medical doctors left the Arab world from 1998 to 2000.

The number of scientists and engineers working in R&D in the Arab region is 371 per million citizens, compared with a global rate of 979 per million. Although the Arab region represents 5 percent of world population, it produces only 1.1 percent of the books in the world. There is an abundance of religious books published in the Arab region -- more than triple the world average -- but a paucity of literary and artistic works. Tons of foreign technology is imported, but it's never really internalized or supplanted by Arab innovations.

The authors are convinced of something any visitor to the region can feel: that there is abundant Arab human capital to reclaim Arab knowledge -- just note how many Arabs thrive as doctors and scientists when they come to the West. But this rebirth requires a massive investment in education, to move it away from uncritical repetition, and steps by the insular Arab states to encourage greater interaction with other nations and cultures and an easing of their social and political restrictions on criticism, the press and importing of ideas from abroad.

What should America's response to all this be? We should stop talking about "terrorism" and WMD and make clear that we're in Iraq for one reason: to help Iraqis implement the Arab Human Development Reports, so the war of ideas can be fought from within. Then we should get out of the way. Just one good model -- one good Arab model that works -- and you will see more than just municipal elections in Saudi Arabia.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.