Professor Kamel Abu Jaber, Jordan's minister of foreign affairs from 1991 to 1993 and a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University, has long contemplated why China is 'on its feet' while the Arab world is 'flat on its face'. The former Middle East peace negotiator views the subject through the lens of an Arab who is an Orthodox Christian and who considers himself 'a friendly critic' of both the west and the Arab world. 'While China is on its feet standing eye to eye with the rest of the world, the Arab world is prostrate, flat on its face, with the colonial western armies that seemingly left the area after the second world war now returning, by invitation of some of the leaders, to establish bases in the region,' said Professor Abu Jaber, 75. He is president of Jordan's Institute for Middle Eastern Studies and has just taught two semesters at Baptist University on the culture, politics and history of the Middle East. He said control over the 'soul, resources and land mass' of the Middle East had been in contention between east and west since at least the 5th century BC, when the Persians and Greeks fought a series of epic battles. Conflicts ensued through the medieval crusades and into the modern era, when oil raised the stakes. 'The Arabs have always been under the direct and immediate scrutiny of the western powers. This is a big difference. China has been blessed by being so far away,' Professor Abu Jaber said. He said that China had been able to build a wall around itself to keep invaders and others out while 'there was no way on earth the Arabs could isolate themselves'. Isolation had given China a chance to maintain a unified culture and language, which had not been the case with the Arabs. 'The Chinese are one people whereas the Arabs are several people. The Arab world is divided into 22 personalities, 22 regimes. Each regime thinks only of itself and its own interests and own relationships, its own vision and strategy for the future,' Professor Abu Jaber said. 'Whereas China speaks with one voice, directing it and outlining its future path, the Arabs appear directionless in a chaotic state caught in that terrible transition between traditionalism and modernity.' Both China and the Arab world were very old, strong civilisations. 'You're talking about 5,000 to 8,000 years of continuous civilisation and it's very difficult to change,' he said. 'The west prides itself on its ability to change but the west is new. I mean, America is less than a minute ago.' Different religious beliefs had influenced each society's capacity to change. 'The Arabs are a monotheistic people with a strong attachment to the religion of Islam. The Chinese - I don't know if you call it blessed or cursed - have 10,000 gods. They don't have to be attached to one god. If they don't like this one, they move to the next one.' Professor Abu Jaber said he found that his students in Hong Kong knew what was right or wrong not because of faith or a belief system but because of 'rational inner direction', whereas followers of monotheistic religions acted on 'what God told me' as expressed through 'eternal truths' revealed to Moses, Jesus or the Prophet Mohammed. 'There are no such unchangeable, eternal truths in Chinese culture because it depends on the very rational Confucian and Lao-tzu Taoist systems,' he said. 'In a society that is innerly-directed it is easier to accept change because as the circumstances change you change with them. Truth is changeable in a rational situation, except certain truths that have to deal with ethics, morality, decency, which are shared by all peoples.' Professor Abu Jaber said that patience was something Arabs should learn from the Chinese, who had been able to 'swallow' many invaders and absorb ideas at a comfortable pace. 'The Arabs find it very difficult. We want to do something immediately. We don't want to take time to do it.' He noted how western fast-food chains had been accepted as part of the modern trend in China, where they now served Chinese dishes. He also noted that China had few sensitivities about keeping and maintaining foreign elements from its colonial past, such as Hong Kong's British institutions and street names in English. No such things had occurred in the Arab world 'because we have lost confidence in ourselves'. 'When I was on the city council of Amman [Jordan's capital], we had to cancel all names of foreign streets because we could only have Arab and Muslim heritage.' Despite many differences, China and the Arab world had in common a love/hate relationship with the west. 'It's like living with an elephant. If it turns this way or that way it will crush you. The west, especially the US, is an elephant,' Professor Abu Jaber said. 'China has no colonial past with the Arabs. So they look to China as a major power that can bring about a certain balance in international affairs, which have become totally unbalanced with the collapse of the Soviet Union.' The fact China was a major power in world affairs could sometimes put a brake on 'certain brash politics' by the west, such as US President George W. Bush's idea of pre-emptive strikes and his designation of 'rogue' or 'good' states, he added. 'Who gave the US the power to go around saying that these people are good and these people are evil? The description is not political, it is a religious description.' Professor Abu Jaber said the west had contributed much to the world, not least democracy, which expressed rationality in the political field. 'If the west could live up to the principles it preaches - human rights, democracy, decency, respect for women, children, for life in general - it would be great.'