The Reform Agenda
Sunday 16th May 2004 - 12:00pm - 1:15pm
The Reform Agenda
World Economic Forum in Jordan 2004
Reform is already under way across the Arab world, bringing major advances in political freedoms, economic liberalization and the role of women, panellists holding political positions in the region declared. But when a vote was taken among participants at the end of the session, 94.4% agreed that the expressed commitment to reform among Middle East governments is "merely rhetorical" while only 5.6% agreed that it is for real.
Introducing the session, Fareed Zakaria, Editor, Newsweek International, USA; Global Leader for Tomorrow 2001, noted that reform "is in the air." The goal of the discussion, he said, "is to bring it to the ground." The scepticism reflected in the final vote emerged in presentations by panellists representing the business sector. Mohammed A. Alabbar, Chairman, Emaar Properties, United Arab Emirates, argued that the success of reform depends on Arab leaderships. "Nothing will happen if we don t have leaderships who are passionate about it." Arab countries have been talking too much about change to the way their societies are run. "Where is our action plan?" he demanded. In a conversation earlier in the day, US Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that the Arab countries are all blaming the US for their problems, but asked: What are you doing about them? "He was right, and I was very embarrassed," said Alabbar.
A similar view was voiced by Ibrahim S. Dabdoub, Chief Executive Officer, National Bank of Kuwait, Kuwait. Reform is needed today more than ever before in Arab countries. "We are going through a period that is very, very dangerous," he said. But the grassroots of Arab societies must be involved because, in the absence of change and the prospect of jobs and a better life, the ordinary people are becoming more radical. The private sector must be empowered to expand and give the needed impulse to social development. But trends are in the other direction. In Kuwait, the private sector in the economy has declined from 80% in the 1960s to a mere 15% today.
Naguib O. N. Sawiris, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Orascom Telecom Holding Egypt; Co Chair of the World Economic Forum in Jordan 2004, was even more categorical. "Reform starts at the top, and reform is in conflict with the interests of the leaderships in the Arab world," he declared. There have been many meetings discussing reform, including last year s Extraordinary Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Jordan, but there have been no real changes. A better approach would be to liberalize economies and leave it to the private sector "because we do it better, and without corruption." China is an example of what can be done; it is not democratic but it is growing fast and is open to the outside world, while many Arab countries he cited Syria and Libya but said there are others are still closed up.
Participants in earlier Forum discussions, said Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, Assistant Secretary General, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), New York, and main author of the recent UNDP Arab Development Report, mainly agreed that reform is no longer a luxury but a necessity. It must go beyond economic liberalization to political and social reform "aimed at helping people lead a more meaningful life." Many things have been done right but there have also been many mistakes. Some 65 million Arabs are still illiterate, 50% of all women can neither read nor write, and 10 million Arab children have no schooling.
Amre Moussa, Secretary General, League of Arab States, Cairo, agreed that reform is no longer a luxury. But, he said it is already under way. "The train of development, the train of reform, has already left the station." A vision of how it must proceed will emerge from the Arab League Summit next week. But, Moussa added, if the problem of Palestine had been seriously addressed and if the question of Iraq had been dealt with properly, "the Arab world would have had only one problem reform." He added, to applause from most participants: "Nothing will change in the region if the Palestine question is not resolved fairly and justly." There is no need for conferences to talk about reform. "It is our own decision, we are doing it ourselves . Just help us."
Reform, said HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom, can come from the top or the bottom. Arab countries must admit their failures and take steps to correct them. But countries introducing reform must keep in mind where they are coming from and know where they are going. There are no blanket, one size fits all solutions. What could bring positive change in some countries could destroy society in others. "The issue of civil liberties is integral to any reform in all our countries," he said. This is a priority, not an adjunct to reform. But not everyone is happy about the process. In Saudi Arabia, there are people "who want to take us back many centuries . But that is not going to happen,." he said. But reforms must not benefit one part of society at the expense of another. A wide programme of change including a major advance in the position of women has already been started in Saudi Arabia by King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz. "The most prized woman today in our country is a woman who has a job." This marks a major turnaround from even 20 years ago when a husband would not accept his wife going out to work. This has come about by itself, and not through a religious fatwa or government decree. "All of our people want reform, and for the leadership to maintain credibility it has to bring it about."
But, Prince Turki asked to applause, is it not possible to ask the United States to reform its foreign policy? Can the US not change its system of social profiling that has seriously affected its Arab citizens?
Thierry Breton, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, France Telecom, France; Co Chair of the World Economic Forum in Jordan 2004, said a vision for reform in the region is vital. He noted that His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan underlined in a speech at the Forum s opening plenary session that the future must come through better education. To achieve this, said Breton, information technology will be a key driver. The private sector must be trusted to spread infotech widely. Alan L. Boeckmann, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Fluor Corporation, USA; Co Chair of the World Economic Forum in Jordan 2004, said political, social and economic reform are all needed and are interdependent. The Arab Business Council launched at the World Economic Forum s Extraordinary Annual Meeting in Jordan last year has made "significant progress" since then in setting out what is needed. The vital investment in the region will only come if foreign businesses will be working in a stable situation and that corruption is being tackled. In an indirect response to Moussa s remarks on Palestine, Boeckman said other political issues must not be allowed to get in the way of the reform process.
Participants were asked to vote on the following four issues:
(1) Which of three problems is the most urgent to tackle in the Arab World: (a) improving human freedom and democratic governance 50.5% (b) Empowering women for a larger role 8.2% (c) Strengthening human capital though education 41.3%
(2) What is most needed from Arab political leaders: (a) a more open society 15% (b) a more open political system 44.2% (c) a more open economy 40.8%
(3) Is the assistance of the U.S. and help or a hindrance for reformers? (a) Help 39.7% (b) Hindrance 60.3%
(4) How committed are most Middle East governments to reform? (a) Merely rhetorical 94.4% (b) Fully committed 5.6%.
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H.R.H. Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa
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Ibrahim S. Dabdoub
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Naguib O. Sawiris
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H.R.H. Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud
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