Relentless revolt against repression has been upending much of the Arab world. Tunisia is already into its second new leader in two months. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak has fled, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi is killing for his life, and often bloody protests have hit Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, and other countries. The speed, intensity, and effectiveness of the demonstrations have authoritarian leaders scrambling as far away as China.

The demands for freedom, democracy, and better lives for poor and often repressed peoples are compelling, but these outcomes are unlikely unless basic challenges are clearly recognized before inevitable frustration settles in. Real progressive change requires time and patient commitment.

To be sure, a rapid transition to some form of democracy would be a source of pride and accomplishment. But would it aid Arabs in confronting the deeper obstacles that have for so long prevented their political and economic development? The fever of revolution has not encouraged enough sober thought about the morning (and the decades) after.

However bad an individual dictator or self-serving elite may be in Africa, the Middle East, or elsewhere, rulers there are much more symptoms than primary causes of national woes. It was not decades of Mubarak, Qaddafi, or others that created so many systems that historically failed to serve the basic needs of the majority of their people.

Culture matters

Some dismiss these criticisms as cultural condescension or even bigotry. But look again at the 2002 Arab Human Development Report. Its sobering assessments of life in Arab countries weren’t the result of Western observers but distinguished Arab intellectuals. They argued clearly and correctly that “culture and values” are the “soul” and “wellspring” of development and went on to warn that “traditional culture and values, including traditional Arab culture and values, can be at odds with those of the globalizing world.”

In a foreword to the report, the Jordanian director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the United Nations Development Program concluded that “the predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings [that] ... pose serious obstacles to human development.“

The first question is what the varied Arab peoples really want. Freedom, equality before the law, jobs, food, housing and human dignity? Or perhaps, as frustrations set in, some form of Islamic extremism? If the former, do they want these changes enough to work together patiently over many years—and make significant adjustments in culture, values and institutions when necessary—to achieve them?

But are major changes or “revolutions” really possible anywhere? The Asian or Sinic “Tiger” countries (Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea) offer impressive evidence that in significant degree they are. These countries share a profound, centuries-old link to traditional Chinese culture that has been adapted to the goals of individual nations.

The tigers are the nations that during the past half century leaped over the rest of the so-called developing countries to join the already developed world, a process they began under wise authoritarian leadership. Even Sinic China and Vietnam have not made that leap despite extraordinary economic growth, in large part because of lingering negative cultural values.

Nor has any country in Africa or the Middle East made the leap, excepting Israel. Nor has any country in Latin America, as Costa Rican Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias explains in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs.

Lessons from South Korea

Take just one of dozens of possible illustrations of the differences; In 1960, Egypt had almost exactly the same per-capita GDP as Nicaragua and South Korea. Fifty years later, according to International Monetary Fund figures, South Korea’s per-capita GDP is 5 times Egypt’s and almost 10 times Nicaragua’s. Why?

Many factors are at play, but the chief differences between those who made it to the developed world in the past half century, and those who didn’t, are getting the economics right—other nations could have made similar choices to the Sinics, but for their own reasons did not—and, as the AHDR report says, culture and values, critical factors in economic decision-making and implementation.

Among the key Sinic cultural factors are the conviction that: (1) education is an expressway to success for individuals and nations; (2) goals should be far higher than mere survival and pursued over the long haul with single-minded diligence and a demanding work ethic; (3) merit should be sought out and rewarded; and (4) frugality and focus must guide the expenditures of funds and energies.

Some other cultures in the past and present have similarly progress-prone qualities, ranging from Max Weber’s much-remarked European Protestants to Jews, Basques, Scandinavians and Americans. African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American cultures largely do not.

If the Arab peoples want significantly greater freedom and economic development, they and their leaders must be fully committed to making it so. But frustration at not having a job or even a “high” from ousting a dictator won’t suffice. Current explosive enthusiasm must become constructively focused and effectively pursued over the long term. This is what the Arab peoples need if they wish to significantly improve their living standards or perhaps even join the developed world.