Friday, December 17, 2004

Refreshing forum but what next?

December 16, 2004

Refreshing forum, but what next?

PV Vivekanand

The Arab Strategy Forum held in Dubai this week offered a refreshing experience in terms of blunt talk about the Arab situation and shortcomings that impede the pace of development and economic progress.
Debate during the three-day event — "The Arab World in 2020 — brought out subjects that are often taboo when discussed at the national level although they are the focus of discussions in private gathering in almost part of the Arab World.
That indeed was the key to the success of the ASF, where participants aired their views on what is wrong in the Arab region and what should and could be done to enable the Arabs to cope with the challenges posed by the fast-moving international and regional developments as well as the shrinking of the world brought about by globalisation.
The sharp reminder of the tough task facing the Arabs came when they were told that there would not many "Arab tigers" along the lines of the "Asian tigers" by the year 2020.
If there would be any, it would be Dubai, and that was an emphatic tribute to the emirate.
The participants were almost unanimous that Arabs would and should decide what was best for them, and that stability and security of the region that are vital for development were inevitably contingent on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its dimensions.
Consensus was that the Arabs would miss the train if they did not get their act together by launching immediate measures to adopt reforms. However, the reforms should be homegrown, based on the ground realities of the country concerned, said the experts, who spoke out firms against the US-led drive for imposing its version of reform on the Arab World.
Arab countries were warned that increased flow of petrodollars as a result of high oil prices should be not be an impediment to economic and political reforms.
Indeed, there were even suggestions that the oil wealth has actually been a hurdle in the way of the natural growth and development of oil-producing Arab countries whereas non-oil Arab states are prompted by their own imperatives to work hard and bring in the results.
Everyone agreed that educating the people and developing human resources is one of the keys to sustainable development and there should be no second thought about investing in creating education sytems oriented towards absorbing high technologies and benefiting from the experience of other countries.
Dubai Crown Prince and UAE Defence Minister Sheikkh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum set the tone for the forum's indepth review of the Arab World's future by warning Arab rulers that they risked losing power if they did not introduce wide-ranging reforms in their countries.
"I say to my fellow Arabs in (power): If you do not change, you will be changed," Sheikh Mohammed told the opening of the forum on "The Arab World in 2020."
"If you do not initiate radical changes to restore respect to public duties, uphold the principles of transparency, justice and responsibility, your peoples will resent you, and the verdict of history on you will be severe," he told the gathering.
Sheikh Mohammed said reforms have to come from within the region.
"Reform cannot be realised by foreign projects and ready-made plans. It cannot be realised by tanks and cannons," he said.
In separate comments to the press, Sheikh Mohammed rejected "the importation of the Western-style democracy."
"Our democracy stems from our tradition, culture and religious principles, which are eternal legacies passed unto us by our ancestors," he said.
"We are very proud of our democracy which our people practice in a one family spirit, and which distinguishes our society from others," he said.

While former US president Bill Clinton and several other speakers said the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had opened a window of opportunity to solve the Palestinian problem, Saudi Ambassador to the Britain Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud said that there would not be peace in the region unless the US shifted its bias in favour of Israel.
"As long as the world remains passive and America remains a strong supporter of Israel that offers any form of support requested, and accepts anything from any prime minister of Israel regardless of his (or) her extremism, then Israel will never seek to compromise or to reach a settlement," said Prince Turki.
Reviewed during the regular sessions and workshops held on the sidelines of the forum were issues such as future of the Arab oil and gas industry and its international dimensions, political systems, reforms and development, Arab security, fighting terrorism, "clash of civilisations, alignment or conflict," economics and politics, globalisation of economies and business, the Iraq crisis, the Libyan experiment in liberalisation, free trade, family businesses, the impact on the world of the Sept.11 attacks in the US, human development and education in the Arab World, the Arab labour market, and the "rise and fall of countries and corporations."
On terrorism, Prince Turki said organisations like Al Qaeda were exploiting Arab and Muslim youth by brainwashing them and were desparate to prove to the world that they exist in the face of security crackdowns and hence their efforts to stage extremist attacks.
There was almost unanimous opinion that the oil-producing Arab countries should seek to diversify their oil-based economies into industrial production, build funds to sustain themselves in a post-oil era, invest more in developing Arab human resources through well-charted education systems and market-oriented training programmes. Above all in the economic sphere, said the participants, governments should shift focus from themselves to the private sector while retaining its role as a facilitator of economic development and growth.
Speakers after speakers referred to China and India as models that could be emulated by the Arabs in terms of economic development, trade liberalisation and adapation of new technologies.
Political reforms are also vital to development and progress and the people's role in governance should be expanded, they said.
However, heard during the debates were complaints that resolutions and decisions adopted at various Arab forums are either not implemented at all or are implemented at a very slow pace that defeats the purpose. Some commentators said governments felt threatened by adopting changes and hence their reluctance to adopt reforms.
It was predicted that there would not be any "Arab tigers" emerging along the lines of the "Asian tigers" by the year 2020 as Arab countries are not moving ahead with reform and adaptation of new international realities at a pace that is required.
"There might be a few cats but I don't see any Arab tigers in the year 2020," said Dr Ghassan Salameh, former minister of culture of Lebanon, who moderated the concluding session, which was attended by New York Times' Thomas Friedman, Abdul Rahman Rashid of Al Arabiya Television and Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International.
According to Zakaria, high prices of oil meant increased income for Arab governments and this was a negative factor against economic reforms since regimes could use the oil money to ward off calls for changes.
Friedman said the increased pace of globalisation was "levelling the competitive playing field" and this meant increased challenges to everyone, particularly those who are slow to adapt themselves to the situation.
Friedman cited as an example how Chinese manufacturers have taken over from Egyptian companies, the production of ornate Ramadan lamps, with the added attraction of microchips that sing perfect Egyptian folk songs.
To take advantage of a "world becoming flat," Friedman said that it is important to take good ideas and practices from others, while at the same time preserving one's own culture and identity.
"When the world is flat, it is flat for the bad guys as well," he said. Osama Bin Laden planned the Sept.11 attacks using all the tools of the "flat world", said Friedman.
He emphasised the need to "drill" human resources rather than oil and equip the young people of the region to take advantage of the opportunities of the "flat world." The inability to exploit these opportunities, he warned, will end up in people feeling humiliation and frustration and these are perfect recipes for extremism.
In his comments on the opening day, Sheikh Mohammed expressed confidence that the Arab World would witness in the next decade a vigorous change.
"Reforms are inevitably coming to our Arab societies," he said, adding that reforms and the solving of the region's problems are intertwined. "But crisis should not obstruct our march towards development, modernisation and economic, social and political developments," he warned.
He underlined the need to solve the crises in Palestine and Iraq based on the principles of international legitimacy and through "dialogue to give each and every one his right for peace and stability to reign in the region and for the peoples in the region to live in peace and harmony irrespective of their religion, race or sectarian inclination."
Clinton, one of the keynote speakers, said he did not see a solution to the Palestinian problem or the wider Arab-Israeli conflict in the next four years as promised by his successor George W Bush.
However, he called on all parties involved to continue to work for peace based on a two-state solution in Palestine. He said the US could play an effective role only if both sides to the conflict had confidence in American mediation.
Clinton told the Arabs they need to realise that all are living in an interdependent world and that it is upon them to define what the Arab World would be like in 2020.
"All we know for sure that we live in an interdependent region and in an interdependent world. For example, both Israel and Syria are interdependent – it depends on whether there are attacks or whether their children play together," Clinton pointed out.
He said growth and development do not rely on vision alone. There are other factors that are required. Vision needs a concrete strategy to activate the vision. Systems are needed to implement that vision. Leadership is a key component and support is needed from the friends of the Arab World, including the US.
Hanan Ashrawi, secretary general of the Palestinian Initiative for Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy and member of the Palestinian parliament, said the Arab World cannot go forward without reform, but the push for it should come from within the region itself and not from a foreign power.
Ashrawi said: "The Arab World has to transform itself from a system based on the concentration of power to one where power is shared by the people. Power should be directed at establishing collective authority and a pluralistic system that allows free interaction."
However, she said that the power should be legitimised by the people and not by the protection provided by a foreign power.
Fuad Ajami, director of Middle East studies programme at John Hopkins University, also reiterated that reform in the region cannot be a "foreign gift."
"Security can be provided under an American umbrella but not reform," he pointed out.
Ajami's description of the invasion and occupation of Iraq as just and comemnt that it "gives a great chance for political change" in the country sparked a verbal clash.
Ajami said: "There is a real possibility that there will be a pluralistic society in which all communities, including the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds, can participate equally and create a system that will work."' He said many Iraqis are eager to get on with the political process in Iraq and not concerned about questions of the legitimacy of the war.
However, Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois, retorted that the US broke all international laws and had ulterior economic motives in the war against Iraq.
"American policy in the Middle East has been determined by oil and Israel in that order," said Boyle. "The US will seek the domination of Arabs and Muslims until there is no oil. As oil runs out, the US and Israel will become more predatory and genocidal towards the Arab people," he predicted.
The US, he said, could care less about democracy. "What they really want is to establish quisling dictators in the region who will serve their purposes," he added.
Education about democratic norms, human rights and rule of law should be high on the agenda of the Arab World. Education, he said, is crucial to the inculcation of these ideas and practices in the region.
Among others attending the forum were Qatari first Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jaber Al Thani, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Dr Mohammed Al Baradei and retired North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley K. Clark.
Former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al Hariri blasted the West for its approach to the Palestinian problem and affirmed that comprehensive peace in the Middle East hinges on Israeli withdrawal from Syrian and Lebanese territories.
Hariri ridiculed what he described as efforts by Western powers to link statehood for Palestinians with "good behaviour."
"A Palestinian state should not be a prize for good behaviour," Hariri told the conference. "A state is not a piece of chocolate or the promise to take a child to picnic if he behaves well. Arabs are ready for a just peace. I hear that the US and Europe are convinced of a Palestinian state. But Palestinians should have a country today and not tomorrow."
Even if the Palestinian problem was addressed, he said, Israel will have to withdraw its army from Lebanese and Syrian territories in order to achieve comprehensive and just peace in the region,
Speaking on the theme of "Arab World in 2020," Hariri said that he is provisonally optimistic.
The world has to exert efforts and end the Arab-Israeli conflict. "We have to achieve just peace. We have to end Israeli occupation. This is a focal point that will define our future," said Hariri.
He said the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace and security in their own homeland. "There should be confidence building measures. These cannot be built in one day or two or in one year or ten."
Hariri said another pillar of a better future of the Arab World is democracy. "Reform has not been successful because there was no good base for democracy or freedom," he said.

UAE Minister of Economy and Planning Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi cited India as a model for development and economic prosperity for the Arab countries while an international expert predicted that there will be 36 million people unemployed in the Arab World by 2020.
"We can learn (from India)," said. Sheikha Lubna. "It has achieved high economic growth despite problems like rapidly increasing population growth."
She said reality does not wait and that she preferred to look five-year chunks ahead rather than 20 years because "Dubai is changing year by year."
Sheikha Lubna identified five key pillars of development: Hard infrastructure (roads, ports, etc.), soft infrastructure (regulation and policy), human capital, transparency and technology.
She said that significant growth requires a government that provides political stability, inspires confidence and injects positive energy. She also called on all governments in the region to measure themselves against a competitive index of technological readiness, macro economic quality, and the international competitiveness of their public institutions.
George T Abed, former director of the Middle East department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggested that investing heavily in English-language education can help the Arab World achieve economic growth.
He also pointed out that India has achieved economic growth and huge successes in the outsourcing industry largely due to its investment in education, specifically English education.
He said that unemployment will continue to be a major problem affecting the Arab World. "With just four per cent growth in the next few years, the inability of paltry economic growth to generate jobs and the competition faced from India and China, the number of unemployed in the Arab World will rise to 36 million," he said.
Abed said that there were four key impediments to economic growth in the Arab World: Bloated governments, a lack of modern institutions, underdeveloped financial institutions and absence of active capital markets.
He said that because the region's population is set to grow at 3.7 per cent the Arab World would need an average economic growth rate of 6.5 per cent. He warned that the region's current and projected growth rates are only four per cent compared to higher rates of growth in India and China. He also noted that the region's performance is declining on a number of key global indicators, including non-oil trade and the use of new technologies such as the Internet. He called on governments in the region to move from being managers and controllers of growth, to become "enablers of growth and guarantors of rights."
He also noted that reforms can not be driven from outside, "by preaching from the United States" that the Arab world must start to reform internally, beginning with the public sector reforms that would create "the moral authority to ask others to reform."
According to Rudiger Grube, member of the board of management of Daimler Chrysler of Germany, the Arab World needs to provide equal opportunities to its citizens to become a political and economic power.
Grube mentioned six "pre-requisites" for development in the Arab World: "Political stability, widespread access to education, inclusion of women in political, economic and social life, reduction of bureaucracy, increase in transparency and a stop to externalisation of the Arab World's problems."
Naguib Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom of Egypt said planned economic integration of the Arab countries will benefit all countries of the region. Although there are great differences among Arab countries, all of them could benefit from integration, he said.
Competitive interests need not prevent effective integration of the Arab region, he said and cited Dubai as a model that the Arab World could emulate.
Sawiris identified a need for three things: Vision, freedom to act, and a government and people prepared to drive reforms. He noted that the children of the Arab World "can compete internationally whenever they are given equal education."
The panelists identified a number of common themes for the Arab World to succeed in 2020: The need for clarity of leadership — that in itself leads to clarity of execution and clarity of governance —  a change in the role of the public sector from control and management to enablement, and a continued focus on international competitiveness.