Reform is our priority

Op-Ed by His Majesty King Abdullah II
The Wall Street Journal
16 April 2004

Observers of the Middle East are inclined, these days to raise the question: Where should reform in the Arab World start – within the region or driven from outside? The issue is important, but the question is not quite accurate. In actual fact, reform in my region has already begun.

Today, throughout the Middle East – in business, government, human services, education – there is a new, 21st century generation of leadership, defined not by age but by a shared commitment to moving forward. We believe that freedom and tolerance are essential if human potential is to be fulfilled. We seek civic institutions that respect human rights, including gender equality, and the rule of law. We know that transparent, accountable governance is essential if citizens are to be shareholders in change.

These ideas have energised thinking across the region. In 2002, distinguished Arab experts produced the Arab Human Development Report, identifying core "freedom gaps" that are keeping our region from its potential. Last January, Jordan and other Arab countries endorsed the Sanaa Declaration on democracy and human rights. A region-wide Arab Business Council has issued a blueprint for economic liberalisation, good governance, and human development. Last month, a unique, pan-Arab conference issued the "Alexandria Declaration," articulating its consensus on reform.

Most Arabs agree that reform is vital. We also know that reform takes work: practical measures, touching virtually every aspect of society. Georges Seurat created sweeping "Pointillist" landscapes by painting millions of tiny dots. But that effort is nothing compared to the painstaking detail involved in creating a landscape of economic, political and social reform. That huge effort is one of the reasons that effective reform must come from within our societies.

In Jordan, such a process is well underway. Specific measures encourage innovation, enterprise, and a new partnership with the private sector. In education, there are new standards of excellence from the earliest years, giving the young the critical skills and knowledge they need. Today, Jordan has a workforce that is, per capita, more computer-literate and entrepreneurial, and better educated, than most developing countries’.

Long-term stability and economic growth cannot be sustained without political reform, and Jordan has made this its first priority. Last year, we held parliamentary elections, and the new parliament is sitting. But elections are only part of democratic life; stable systems of civic rights and laws are essential. To drive such reform, Jordan has created a ministry for political development and a new Human Rights Centre. We are working to improve political participation, judicial independence and human rights. To ensure that laws do not discriminate against women, a legal review is in progress. We have also abolished the Ministry of Information and are disengaging the state from direct control of public media organisations; and we have drafted laws to open the public airwaves to private TV and radio.

Just as most Arabs agree on reform, so too they agree that for reform to succeed, it must emerge from within our societies. Justified or not, many Arabs do not trust the motives of Western-inspired Arab reform. They look to Islam's own proud tradition of humanistic values, and they believe that Muslim nations are more than able to generate peaceful, democratic regimes. The equal dignity of all people; respect for reason and law; tolerance and personal responsibility: these are Islam's true values, and they will drive a new era of progress in the Middle East.

Reform, to be effective, demands a clear endgame, one that promises to bridge the gaps that Arabs face in human development, freedom, global opportunity and regional peace. To ensure that change will take hold and endure, there should also be a regional effort to identify key reform objectives. While the upcoming Arab summit is expected to support reform, the May meeting of the World Economic Forum, at the Dead Sea in Jordan, offers unprecedented opportunity to launch a process to define a Middle East vision for 2010.

Reform in Arab countries will have a huge impact, not only in our region but in the world. In June, the G-8 Summit is expected to respond to ongoing Middle East efforts with a statement of support for the reform process, one that can help bridge Arab and Western views of reform. Just as important is the international community's active support for regional justice and peace, including peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, and the creation of a viable Palestinian state. This continuing conflict, with its poisonous cycle of violence and division, leaves millions of people in the region believing that modern global justice – the justice of the democratic free world – has failed. Nothing obstructs development and fosters extremism more. For reform to succeed, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must be solved.

The hard work of today's reformers will continue. Those who seek to help must now resolve the core issue, the issue of peace in the Middle East.