Arab business leaders: Talk of reforms - “merely rhetorical”
Political and business leaders from the Arab world agreed that wide-ranging reform in the region is vital to tackle the social problem faced by the region. However, they had strong differences on how far change was already on the way.
A vote among participants after a session on “The Reform Agenda” at the World Economic Forum in Jordan 2004 indicated deep scepticism over whether the region’s political leadership is genuinely committed to change, with 94.4% saying they believed talk of reform is “merely rhetorical.” The vote also showed a majority feeling that the US is more of a hindrance than a help to reformers.
The scepticism was reflected in comments at the session by representatives of the business sector. Mohammed A. Alabbar, Chairman, Emaar Properties, United Arab Emirates, said Arab leaders had been talking a great deal about change to the way their societies are run. “But where is our action plan?” he demanded.
Ibrahim S.Dabdoub, Chief Executive Officer, National Bank of Kuwait, Kuwait, said reform was needed more than ever in the Arab states. “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.
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.”
Reform is no longer a luxury but a necessity, said Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, Assistant Secretary-General United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), New York. It must go beyond economic liberalization to political and social reform. Some 65 million Arabs are still illiterate, 50% of all women can neither read nor write, and 10 million Arab children have no schooling.
Amr Moussa, Secretary-General, League of Arab States, argued that reform was already under way. “The train of development, the train of reform, has already left the station,” said. A vision of how it must proceed will emerge from the Arab League Summit next week. But 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: “Nothing will change in the region if the Palestine question is not resolved fairly and justly.”
Prince Turki Al Faisal, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom, said Arab nations must admit their failures and take steps to correct them. “The issue of civil liberties is integral to any reform in all our countries,” he said. Not everyone is happy about the process, and in Saudi Arabia there are people “who want to take us back many centuries.” That, he added firmly, “is not going to happen.” A wide programme of change – including a major advance in the position of women – has already been started in his country. (menareport.com)
© 2004 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)