Everyone can remember where they were on September 11, 2001. And on that day, ten years later, it is worth reflecting on where the Arab world was, and where it has come in the decade since.

As Reza Aslan writes, the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks is also an anniversary for the beginning of a transformative decade for the Arab world.

Many years from now, when the history of 9/11 is written from a far enough distance, it may consume a hefty chapter in America’s national narrative. But in the Arab world, it will be seen as a watershed, a moment of awakening unlike any the region has seen in more than a century.

And as the people of the region awoke, their countries underwent changes not just to their psyche, but to their political leadership.

On September 11, 2001, the UAE was still ruled by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, who had led the country since its founding in 1971. Dubai's current ruler, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid, who is synonymous with the Dubai boom and bust of the last decade, was yet to take power, as was Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

Syria's Bashar Assad (who turns 46 on Sunday, September 11 2011) had inherited the country's presidency just 14 months earlier, after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled since 1971. Egypt's economic reformists, led by president-in-waiting Gamal Mubarak, had yet to claim the country's prime ministership and leading cabinet positions, and its economy was moribund. Yasser Arafat still led the Palestinian Authority and Saddam Hussein was in his 22nd year of power in Iraq.

The bookend to the 9-11 decade has been, of course, the Arab spring, which has seen the long-term leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya ousted, with power in Syria and Yemen still in the balance.

And while the revolutions of 2011 have cemented a permanent shift in the region's political psyche, the decade leading up to them has been equally transformational. In the time it has taken for New York to almost rebuild a tower at Ground Zero, Dubai built this, and Abu Dhabi and Qatar have begun similarly spectacular building booms.

Just 600,000 Egyptians were using the internet in 2001, a number that has increased to more than 16m. Arabic has been the internet's fastest-growing language in the last decade as usage soared across the region. Alongside the internet boom was a similar boom in satellite television, smashing the terrestrial television monopolies of domestic governments.

Oil was as about $28 per barrel when planes were piloted into the World Trade Centre, and the subsequent oil price boom led to vast surpluses for Middle East exporters. An increased hostility to Arab investors in the US helped fuel a MENA investment boom as more petrodollars were pumped into regional real estate and stock markets.

And as many have pointed out, while America has experienced a "lost decade" after 9-11, the same period has marked the emergence of the BRIC countries, and emerging markets in general, as drivers of global growth. The simultaneous boom in the Arab world in this period has created new political and economic connections that were in their infancy at best in 2001.

It is impossible to isolate which of the many changes in the region would have taken place regardless of September 11 and its aftermath. But while the decade since has finished with the death of Osama bin Laden and the birth of a new Arab political landscape, what happened in the years in-between matters just as much to where the region is headed.


Sunday in the Middle East is a weekly column. FT Tilt's MENA correspondent Tom Gara takes a birds-eye view of the Middle East as the region undergoes its most dramatic transformation in decades. See all our Sunday in the Middle East columns via this link - you can also subscribe by email.