Who's responsible for the Arab world?

First, the good news. Arab countries have the lowest levels of malnutrition and hunger in the developing world, have made "striking progress" in extending the lives of their citizens, abject poverty is comparatively low and, surprisingly (for me at least), levels of income inequality are moderate across most of the region. These are some of the few silver linings contained in the latest disillusioning and disturbing Arab Human Development Report (AHDR).

Despite the bad international press the conflicts in the region draw, the Arab world is, based on its level of violent crime, just about the safest place in the world. The real threat to people's safety comes not from outlaws but from those above the law, an altogether different gang of criminals: Arab leaders and foreign occupiers.

The AHDR concludes that the Arab state is often "a threat to human security, instead of its chief support". This edition of the report has shifted its perspective from collective security and development to the emerging perspective of individual "human security". It describes human security as "the rearguard of human development" which "focuses on enabling peoples to contain or avert threats to their lives, livelihoods and human dignity".

The report identifies seven categories of threats which can be divided into two broad groups: internal and external. One of the greatest of these threats, as hinted above, is the state's role as defender of a ruling elite rather than champion of all the people. This is achieved through repressive security measures and a bloated security apparatus, built-in institutional weakness, and the co-opting of nationalism to serve the survival of the regime.

In the absence of impartial law and order and as a side effect of political and economic powerlessness, women are particularly vulnerable to abuse. "Arab women, like many of their peers in other regions, sustain both direct and indirect violence," the AHDR observes.

In this, as with so many other issues, taking a regional perspective masks the massive differences between individual countries. In fact, there is a mind-boggling diversity of societies: from multi-ethnic Sudan to largely homogenous Egypt, from dirt-poor Yemen to the super-rich princedoms in the Gulf, from the largely secular Lebanon and Tunisia to the autocratic theocracy of Saudi Arabia. For example, the proportion of women who get married before they are 18 ranges from a massive 45% in Somalia to 2% in Algeria.

In my view, the Arab state's failure to serve its citizens is intimately connected – both as a cause and effect – with the region's lacklustre economic performance, as is the region's instability. Shockingly, the AHDR quotes World Bank figures that show the region's economies to have grown collectively by a mere 6.4% in real terms in the quarter of a century between 1980 and 2004.

This is partly due to the Arab world's addiction – both direct and indirect – to oil-fuelled growth, and the dismantling of the industrial infrastructure in the more industrialised states that occurred as part of the so-called "reforms" pushed by the World Bank and IMF. In fact, today, Arab countries are less industrialised than they were in 1970.

Modest economic growth or even stagnation in itself is not a problem if the fruits are distributed equitably and the population is stable. But Arab elites are increasingly hogging big slices of the economic pie, while the "youth bulge" has led to mass unemployment in most countries, especially among young people. To add pain to indignity, the "structural reforms" many countries had to undergo mean that subsidies and other benefits are becoming almost non-existent.

And the region's ecological carrying capacity is being strained by its continued population growth and global environmental pressures. Ironically, although the Arab world is a minor contributor to greenhouse gas emission, it is set to become one of the main victims of climate change, as the region's water sources dry up and desertification spreads on the back of rising temperatures.

Another more controversial external threat is foreign military occupation and intervention. "Many of the threats to human security discussed in the report coalesce in situations of occupation, conflict and military intervention," the authors note, drawing on the evidence of three case studies covering Iraq, the occupied Palestinian territories and Somalia. "They spark both resistance and a cycle of violence and counter-violence that engulfs occupied and occupier alike [and] undercut human security in other Arab and neighbouring countries."

In an apparent pre-emptive bid at damage control with the US and Israel, the UNDP, according to the report's lead consultant, moved the chapter on foreign occupation to the end of what is billed as an "independent" report. "[This] undermines the impact of Israeli occupation in Palestine and American occupation in Iraq to human security," Mustapha Kamel al-Sayed, who disowned the report, told al-Masry al-Youm.

This has sparked some heated debate among Arab intellectuals, with some going so far as to suggest that the AHDR is little more than intellectual cover for western expansionism in the region. Some have even linked the report's absence for the last four years with ill intent. "Suddenly, out of nowhere, it appears again this year to lecture us about security, while foreign military occupations and interferences, and their catastrophic consequences on the region are at the bottom of its concerns," wrote one journalist.

But such an attitude risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater since, to my mind, it lets off Arab leaders too lightly. Foreign occupation is definitely a major threat – and outright disaster for the societies directly affected – and deserves far more than footnote status. But we most not overlook that, almost without exception, Arab regimes, whether they are western clients or not, are a major cause of insecurity for their peoples – in fact, the ruling elite often behaves as though they were a foreign occupier.

In addition, the AHDR has taken the consistent and anti-interventionist stance that: "sustainable change can only come from within". It even argues that the region's increasingly dynamic and outspoken civil society offer the best hope for the future.

The UNDP may have toned things down somewhat to deflect some of the heat it might get from the United States, but this does not make it an instrument of "western imperialism". After all, it also seemed to be appeasing Arabs by dropping a chapter on the "ticking bomb" of identity conflicts. "The casualties of the situation in South Sudan, civil war in Lebanon and other such conflicts are very high and yet this chapter was reduced to two pages integrated into another chapter," al-Sayed pointed out.

Arabs and those interested in assisting the region to develop would do well to pay close attention to the seven "building blocks" of human security outlined in the AHDR, which range from empowering women and economic diversification to guaranteeing the rule of law and protecting the environment.

Khaled Diab, a Brussels-based journalist and writer.