Despite numerous international initiatives for peace and
prosperity, the Middle East continues to be riddled with violent
conflicts and lagged socio-economic development since the
establishment of Israel in 1947. The most recent initiative was
made by the U.S. to the group of eight industrial countries (G8)
that unanimously adopted it in June 2004. This is by far the most
ambitious initiative ever proposed for the Middle East, both in its
geographic coverage and substantive content.
Geographically, the initiative covers Arab countries, neighboring
Iran, Turkey and Israel, and extends beyond to Pakistan and
Afghanistan, hence the term Greater Middle East (GME).
Substantively, with the political, economic and technical muscle of
the G8 behind it, the initiative promises a peaceful, free, and
prosperous Middle East. Yet with all such promise, the GME
initiative was born dead in angry Arab waters.
This is a great loss for both the G8 and GME countries.
Something bold needs to be done, with imagination and diligence, to
salvage this worthy initiative and move its fate off dead center
for the benefit of all participants, beneficiaries and donors
alike. For reasons explained in this article, I propose that Russia
and Germany are uniquely qualified to assume the responsibility of
saving the G8-GME initiative. Whether Russia and Germany are
willing to do so is another matter. The available window of
opportunity for this historic initiative is rapidly closing, given
the primacy of three GME hot fronts in the minds of G8 decision
makers: Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan.
A storm of criticism in Arab media hit the GME initiative when
it was first proposed by the U.S., but before the G8 adopted it in
their spring meeting 2004. While Arab critics raise valid
questions, they offer phobic answers. First, they question the
absence of what they consider as the mother of all Middle East
ills: Israel’s occupation of Palestine. In a reflective response И
la Pavlov, they reject the GME initiative out of hand. Second, the
critics question the interest of the West – led by the U.S. – in
Arab reform. Their answers revolve around sinister American designs
on the region, ostensibly to prepare the grounds for Israel’s
hegemony – not only of the Arab world (already a fait accompli),
but also of the four other Muslim countries, as well.
While such claims may appeal to Arab simpletons, they do not
hold much water upon careful examination. The international
community is justifiably concerned about stability in the Arab
world: during the last 50 years, 35 percent of world conflicts were
in that region, which has less than 6 percent of the world
population. The interest of the G8 is clearly spelled out in the
first paragraph of the G8 initiative:
“A close correlation exists between political and social
disenfranchisement of Arabs and the rise of extremism, terrorism,
international crime, and illegal migration.”
All such phenomena spell trouble for the G8 countries, which
recognize that their vested interest is in containing those
troubles by going to their root causes. As the leading industrial
countries see it, fighting poverty and its correlates in Arab
countries is an effective, though indirect, way to contain trouble
in G8 countries.
Does this mean that Israel is no longer relevant as a cause of Arab
anger? No, it simply means that Israel is not the only cause. The
West is well aware that Arabs are inflamed by the massacres of
Palestinians and destruction of their homes at Israeli hands,
mostly with American weaponry, aircraft and technology. Moreover,
the West is somewhat divided on Israel: the U.S. provides
unconditional support, while others provide qualified support for
Israel’s survival, but not for Palestinian destruction.
Occasionally, other members of the G8 condemn Israeli excesses.
Public opinion in those countries is shifting in favor of
Palestine, but not in the U.S. What about the other causes of
THE THREE DEFICITS
The G8 document starts with adopting the conclusions of the two
Arab Human Development Reports organized by the United Nations in
2002 and 2003. Ironically, Arab governments had completely ignored
those reports until the G8 accepted their analysis and conclusions,
identifying three deficits in the development of the Arab world:
freedom, knowledge, and women empowerment. Arab experts claim that
such deficits were responsible for the feeble pace of Arab
development since the late 1970s. The G8 initiative logically
builds upon that important premise by proposing policies to rectify
conditions of economic and social ills in Arab countries. Let us
look at the identified deficits.
The freedom deficit. The Arab reports decry the lamentable state
of participatory governance in the region. This freedom deficit
undermines human development and is one of the most painful
manifestations of lagging political development. To reduce this
deficit, the G8 initiative proposes several programs to promote
democracy and good governance through measures to ensure free
elections, exchange and training programs for parliamentarians,
women’s leadership academies, grassroots legal aid, promotion of
independent media, efforts to improve transparency and reduce
corruption, and expansion of the role of civil society
The knowledge deficit. The Arab reports state that Arab countries
lag markedly behind other regions in knowledge broadly defined.
Knowledge constitutes the road to development and liberation,
especially in a world of intensive globalization. To reduce this
deficit, the G8 initiative aims at improving basic education,
expanding literacy, upgrading textbooks, implementing educational
reforms, increasing Internet access, and boosting business
Lack of women empowerment. The Arab reports conclude that
limited economic opportunities have largely been responsible for
the weak state of women empowerment. To broaden those
opportunities, the G8 initiative proposes to strengthen the
potential of the private sector, especially small and medium
enterprises that could act as the primary engines of economic
growth and job creation. The two key factors for such a
transformation are finance and trade. Financial reform is proposed
for several levels: micro-finance, a regional finance corporation
(similar to the International Finance Corporation), a regional
development institution (like the European Development Bank), and
measures to modernize banking and financial services. Trade reforms
include: WTO accession, trade facilitation, establishing trade
hubs, and business incubator zones, etc.
CALLS FOR REFORM
The remedies mentioned above bear remarkable similarities to the
remedies proposed by the Alexandria Declaration of the Arab Reform
Conference concluded in March 2004 (www.arabreformforum.org/English).
To quell false claims that calls for reform are foreign-inspired
and to avail maximum space for open discussions, the conference
organizers led by the Library of Alexandria invited for
participation only civil society representatives from different
Arab countries. Pointedly, they did not invite Arab officials or
foreign observers to ensure that the conclusions and policy
recommendations of the conference are not only home-grown, but also
contain no official inputs or influence.
Significantly, the same policies recommended by the Alexandria
Declaration, and now by the G8 initiative, had already proven their
relevance and effectiveness in South East Asia, where the ‘Asian
Tigers’ have emerged. The identified remedies, whether proposed by
the G8 or by Arab intellectuals, provide recipes to reduce the
three deficits if Arabs were to improve their performance and
compete in the global economy. Significantly also, four other
regional reform conferences for Arab civil society organizations
took place during 2004: in Beirut, Amman, Doha, and Cairo. They
essentially bear the same message. In addition, numerous political
opposition parties in Egypt and other Arab countries issued their
own statements about the necessity of reforms, each putting its own
emphasis on what suits their particular platform, but the broad
lines are also the same.
Regardless of who proposes remedies, it is evident that the Arab
world is overdue for reform in all of its dimensions: political,
economic, social, and cultural. In this regard, those who focus
their energies on who proposes reform and neglect the substance of
reform knock at the wrong door and deflect from the real issue.
Unwittingly, they are the worst offenders to improved Arab future,
even though they claim to be the defenders of that future.
Conveniently, they hide behind big banners, such as nationalism,
independence, Islam’s way, our uniqueness (whatever that is), etc.
Maybe they are ashamed to accept evidence of Arab development
failure and are incapable to stand up to do something about it.
Maybe they lack confidence to debate international initiatives on
their own merits, so they take the easy way out and attack the
source of such initiatives.
The obstructionists belong to a wide range of political
persuasions: Islamists, nationalists, communists, socialists, and
independents. The most pathetic among the obstructionists are the
Islamists, because they desperately try to stay in the reform
debate where they have nothing to contribute. They invoke Arab
history, culture, and geography, but so does everyone else. Their
reminders of the contributions of Arab civilization to the world
are irrelevant to the ongoing debate. Fair-minded Western observers
know that Islam and socio-economic backwardness are not correlated.
After all, two of Asia’s tigers are Muslim countries (Malaysia and
It is thus time for critics of various shades of opinion to stop
chest beating and put conspiracy theory aside, because it is a
poor, tired, old excuse. It is equally time to get the religious
establishment out of politics, especially in arbitrating between
conflicting objectives. The design of socio-political-economic
reforms is not a religious issue; it is a social issue for
technocrats and politicians to sort out. Because of their vested
interests, Islamists insist otherwise and dig in their heels. The
battle lines are drawn.
THE ABSENCE OF REFORMS
The truth about reform is that it cannot produce sustainable
results unless it is coupled with a ‘social contract’ between the
governing elite and the governed street. With the present freedom
deficit, where the free will of citizens is seriously curtailed,
such social contracts are likely to be fake – a dictation of the
elite’s will upon the hapless street. Arab regimes have not really
served their people; they worked tirelessly to protect their own
interests and expand their wealth base. The media they own has
worked equally tirelessly to mislead citizens, feed lies, and
protect the masters’ interests. Under the circumstances is it any
surprise that Arab regimes have failed to produce a credible and
worthy vision for the future? The reason is self-evident: serious
reforms in Arab countries would threaten existing vested interests
that in turn would resist to the teeth.
The claim that Arab reforms had to be postponed to better
prepare for the battle with Israel is an empty excuse. Israel
adopted reforms and guarded its democracy while battling the Arabs.
Equally empty is the claim that the conflict with Israel has
diverted valuable Arab resources from development to armament.
Israel had to divert resources for military superiority, without
sacrificing socio-political development. It has been more than 30
years since the end of the October War, the last major armed
Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel cleverly used this respite to deepen
its own socio-economic reforms, which helped it integrate better
into the global economy. Other developing countries that took
reforms seriously made major strides during the same 30 years.
South East Asia was able to join the ranks of the developed world.
Regrettably, while many countries have been working diligently on
reforms, Arabs snoozed!
Arab media rejected the G8 initiative out of hand, for no reason
other than its origin is American. Similar policies have been
articulated in five convergent Arab declarations, formulated by
some of the best and brightest. What excuse do the obstructionists
now have? Surely, they will come up with some trivia to undermine
serious efforts. The Arab Summit in August 2004 only paid lip
service to the cause of reform but failed to adopt any reform
agenda. Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party failed to capture
a golden opportunity to introduce serious political reforms in
September 2004. They opted instead for economic reforms. In short,
the main reason why calls for reforms are not heeded is the absence
of political will on the part of Arab governments.
BREAKING THE DEADLOCK
Contrary to early optimistic assessments that 2004 would be the
year of Middle East reforms, it became the year of recrimination
and deadlock. Whether we like it or not, the obstructionists
managed to mobilize the Arab street in the wrong direction and
blocked dialog between the G8 and their spineless governments.
Through intimidation they got Arab governments worried enough about
accepting the G8 initiative, on grounds it is U.S.-inspired, and
nothing good comes out of the U.S. If some government dares to
accept the initiative, it risks branding as an imperialist stooge.
Unhappily, as long as the U.S. is perceived to be leading the call
for reforms in the Middle East, not much progress can be made.
It thus behooves the G8 to look for other messenger(s) to
deliver the message forcefully and persuasively to reluctant Arab
governments. Four likely candidates could step forward to lead the
dialog with GME countries: France, Germany, Russia, and the UK. All
four have active and strategic interests in the Middle East. Over
the last few decades, all have extended development assistance to
countries in the region. However, not all are acceptable as
messengers of reform to the region’s skeptical public or weak
To many Arab critics, France’s colonial oppression of political
leadership in six countries of the region cannot be readily
dismissed. The street is unlikely to forget or forgive what France
had done to the political elite in Algeria, Djibouti, Lebanon,
Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia. The same applies to Great Britain
because of its colonial history and oppression of national
political movements in another six countries of the region: Egypt,
Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestine, and Sudan. Rightly or wrongly,
Arab historical sentiments against France and Great Britain would
preclude them as messengers of contemporary reforms in that
volatile part of the world.
The two likely candidates are Germany and Russia. Both enjoy a
positive image and neither have had colonial experiences in the
Arab world; they qualify as reliable, unbiased, trustworthy
brokers. Postwar Germany is perceived as a neutral power that
extended to Arabs generous development assistance since its
recovery from the devastation of WWII. Russia is perceived even
more positively because of its military assistance to Egypt, Iraq,
and Syria and its helping Egypt with the construction of the Aswan
High Dam during years of the Cold War. More recently, both Arab
elite and street recognize that Russia is one fourth of the quartet
that sponsored the road map for Israeli-Palestinian peace and for
the two-state solution.
The weight and prestige of Germany and Russia in the GME
countries could start moving the rusty locomotive of reforms off
dead center into meaningful dialog. As Germany and Russia represent
the collective will of the G8, they could engage the GME countries
using a stick-and-carrot approach. The leverage of G8 countries is
enormous: aid, trade, investment, finance, technology, and
military. Collectively, the G8 controls the bulk of those flows to
GME. If the GME countries fail to respond, at least they would have
been duly forewarned of the disastrous effects of their
Since the initiative was adopted in June 2004 by the G8, it is
regrettable that nothing has been done with it so far. The next G8
meeting should take up this matter to start moving things forward
in earnest. Considering how troubled U.S. image has become in Arab
countries, the U.S. is best advised to cede leadership of this
matter to Germany and Russia, in the interest of all industrial
countries. In parallel, the GME countries are waiting for the U.S.
to restart talks to establish an independent Palestinian State, now
that Yasser Arafat, Israel’s old excuse is gone. Whether the U.S.
is willing to agree to those actions in the forthcoming G8 meeting
remains to be seen.
The interests of Germany and Russia to improve their relations
with the U.S. as their strategic ally should be sufficient
inducement for both to take the lead on the GME initiative. Such
lead should get the U.S. off the hook, a welcome relief, and
accomplish the broad objectives of all G8 countries. Whether
Germany and Russia are willing to spend some of their capital on
the Middle East must be weighed against their earlier Iraq-related
rift with the U.S. With Bush’s re-election for another four years,
I am inclined to bet that the two countries would find ways to get
the G8 out of the deadlock.
This article is based on the author’s report to an
international conference entitled Democracy, International
Governance and the World Order, organized by the Club of Three, the
Alfred Herrhausen Society for International Dialogue,
DaimlerChrysler and the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in