Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The Asian Rumbling and the Battle against Time

The fiercest general is called time. It is the master of open battle. It tests individuals, peoples and nations and smiles tauntingly at the defeated. It is a fierce warrior that does not rest. It closes one chapter and moves on quickly to the next.

This enemy is a gamble to those who have the will and knowledge to transform it from a barrier and trap into an opportunity. Experience has shown that governments that squander the lives of their people are just as cruel as those that shed their blood.

The battle with time is truly the mother of all battles. This is the feeling sensed by the Arab journalist, who has visited those Asian countries that have made peace with time and saved the lives of their citizens from loss. They did so by saving them from hunger, backwards education and a poor health system.

The same journalist knows that almost half a century ago, Middle Eastern capitals were much better off than they are now because their governments sent them back to the past instead of turning to the future.

The relationship with time is key.

Many naïve questions came to mind in Bali, Seoul and Bangkok. What would Libya look like today had the officers of the September revolution used the oil wealth to improve education, acquire tools of modernity and establish a normal state in the world.

Moammar al-Gaddafi chose to sail in the opposite direction of history. He downed more than one civilian jet, sent explosives by land, air and sea, abducted OPEC ministers and tasked his agencies to crack down on “stray dogs” wherever they may be.

He battled many parties, but chose not to wage the battle of time, meaning the battle of belonging to the age. Libya wasted four decades of its life and wealth under Gaddafi, his posters, Green Book and strained relations with the world.

After Gaddafi’s ouster, Libyan factions took it upon themselves to squander opportunities, shed blood and waste wealth.

A decade before the Libyan revolution, Lee Kuan Yew was the head of government in Singapore, whose people were languishing in poverty, swamps and scarce resources. He embarked on a heated race with time. He shunned conflicts and set his sights on education, technological progress and sound management.

The result was the transformation of the country into a financial and investment hub. He created massive improvement in the people’s living standards and offered them opportunities, rather than fear and a sense of resignation.

Another naïve question: What would Iran look like today had the Shah opted to establish a normal state that was skilled at exploiting its massive resources in favor of the people? In all likelihood, Iran could have been transformed into an economic hub, a country that attracts investors and tourists and is a proactive regional and international player.

Iran could have been different had it chosen to prioritize improving the living conditions of its people instead of spending excessively on breaching maps and forming small roaming armies.

The Iranian regime is now being confronted with youths who were born after the revolution. The confrontation is a result of the regime’s failure in realizing the importance of time in the battle for progress and instead making do with amassing arsenals and infiltrating maps.

The odd thing is that the Iranian revolution did not realize the obvious truth that the Soviet Union collapsed because it lost its battle with time.

A year before the victory of the Iranian revolution, Deng Xiaoping was at the helm in Beijing. His experience working in France and its factories opened his eyes to the battle of time and progress.

He realized that the ship steered by Mao Zedong was headed towards the abyss. He needed to steer it towards prosperity, famously declaring: “It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” He kept Mao’s mausoleum, but prevented him from looming large over the country from his grave.

Those who view how the Chinese president is welcomed in Asia and the world realize that China’s success in the race against time helped save hundreds of millions from poverty and transformed Mao’s country into the “factory of the world”, leaving the United States anxious over the advent of the Chinese age.

Several questions assault the Arab journalist when they visit Asian countries that have taken different paths in the race against time. The paths may be divergent, but the goal is clear: improving the people’s living standards.

One wonders what Iraq could have looked like today had it followed the path forged by South Korea when it joined the race for modernity and advancement, making massive leaps without boasting any of the major natural resources enjoyed by Iraq. One wonders what are the reasons that have prevented Lebanon from becoming anything like Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. Instead, Lebanon has been mired in wasting time and blood in endless internal disputes and costly gambles in regional conflicts.

Arab cities are not destined to remain on the fringes of history and outside the race with time. Dubai realized this early on. The current experience in Saudi Arabia confirmed that Arabs are capable of forging their own destiny and future and exiting decades of stagnation and ideas that are stuck in the past.

It is not true that there is no room for the Arabs in today’s world. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Asian tour demonstrated that the Arabs can claim a decent place when they meet the conditions of the seats they aspire to occupy.

This can be achieved when they claim their destiny and enjoy a vision of progress that employs capabilities in service of projects and plans. It can be achieved when they invest in the youth and employ technology in service of progress. It can be achieved by establishing fair relations with world countries, forge partnerships based on mutual interests and assume international responsibility in combating poverty and climate change.

Just a few years ago, Crown Prince Mohammed launched a race against time. And now countries and companies are eager to partner with this unprecedented workshop in the Middle East.

For the first time in decades, the Arabs feel that they are not destined to live in the past and are not looking longingly as others forge ahead towards the future. For the first time, there is an Arab model for rapid promising advancement.

Yes, Saudi Arabia does boast extraordinary natural resources, but it is also employing human energy in education, technology and innovation towards achieving progress.

The wars of the past only lead to the past. Winning the battle with time makes up for lost decades and even centuries and allows people to look forward to the future.

The Asian rumbling is a reality. It is a lesson in fighting time. It is obvious that the Asian age is nearing. It is only a matter of time.