In some respects, the Arab world, composed of 22 Arabic-speaking members of the Arab League, shares a common administrative legacy. It represents the fruit of parallel development of all the countries concerned in one geographical region under the powerful influence of certain dominant factors. These factors have been chiefly: a) a harsh physical environment, and the economy of scarcity; b) Islam, a driving force and a pervasive doctrine, acknowledging no clear separation of Church and State; and c) a heritage encompassing some very diverse streaks derived from the Sassanian and Byzantine Empires, but mostly from the Ottomans, who dominated the region for almost six centuries, and from the Western powers that followed suit: firstly Britain and France, especially in the inter-war years, and the United States, since World War II.
The cumulative impact of the remarkable rise and rapid expansion of Arab power, its singular accomplishments but also growing tensions caused by dynastic conflicts, helped generate a doctrine of Arab governance which underscored the importance of unity and stability, underpinned by tacit acceptance of shared moral values. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was the leading exponent of this world-view in his history of Arab governance (Almuqadama). Colonial domination exposed the Arab countries to powerful Western influences. In retrospect, however, the administrative patterns and structures introduced by major Western powers seldom produced the effects that might have been expected. Often, “their role in the colonies was primarily the negative one of maintaining internal security”. This partly explains the reactions which “policy transfers” engender when seen as blatant interference in a country's domestic affairs, and as contrary to its culture.
The current state and progress of public administration in Arab lands is one of unequal development. On the one hand, great strides have been accomplished in the realm of human development; on the other hand, the record of integrity, in most of the countries concerned, leaves much to be desired, according to the Index of Transparency International. In spite of attempted reforms, most administrative systems in the Arab world remain singularly top heavy and overly centralised. Concentration of responsibility and the top and at the centre does not create conditions where transparency and accountability can flourish; where criteria of efficiency and rationality prevail. Public services remains underpaid but overstaffed, with rigidities that render any improvement hard to achieve. Administrative structures raise obstacles to change. But lack of political will, allied to a conservative culture, are even bigger hurdles. The inevitable conclusion, which may be drawn from the collective experience of the region, points to the role of leadership in administrative reform. It underscores the importance of political will and a process of socialisation, which seeks to capitalise on the common needs and values of citizens, stakeholders and public servants. Professionalism is critical, given not only the challenges but also the opportunities for the Arab States ahead.