Reform: An Arab Agenda

Discussions leading up to the G-8’s MENA summit in Bahrain have focused on reform issues that must be addressed by Arab society.

Last week, I had an opportunity to participate in two separate conferences in Bahrain, one featuring non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from across the Arab world (in what was called the “parallel conference” to the summit), the other, a meeting of the Arab Business Council, a remarkable gathering of Arab business leaders organized in partnership with the World Economic Forum.

Despite some obvious differences in orientation, the two groupings shared many concerns. There is, for example, broad agreement that economic, social, political, and religious reform is needed in the Arab world. There is also concern in both quarters with the dangers that extremist groups opposed to this reform effort.

While some have sought to discredit the push for reform, claiming that reform is an American agenda, they are wrong. It is an Arab agenda, recognized as such, and being acted on, in different degrees, by many Arab governments, and supported by most segments of Arab society.

In my remarks to the parallel conference, I acknowledged that it is an unfortunate reality that because the US Administration is plagued by a lack of credibility, it may be doing some damage to the reform effort. Nevertheless, I noted, the reform agenda should be embraced, not because of America, but despite American support, because the Arab people need these changes.

As our polling demonstrates, the top concerns for Arab public opinion are: expanding employment opportunities, improving health care and the educational system, and ending corruption. These should form the core of any Arab reform agenda for both government and the private sector. For example, governments and the private sector must not only grow their economies and open their market to the west and east, but they must focus on people’s needs: improving the quality of life opportunities for young and old, men and women, businessman and laborers alike. They must not only build their physical infrastructure, but a new social, civil and political infrastructure as well–”so that citizens can participate fully in creating and benefiting from the new economy. Opportunities must be made for businessmen to shape public policies that will help them grow. Opportunities must also be created for workers to advocate for their rights, so they too can prosper. And opportunities must be made for women to participate on all levels of society.

If it is true that government must change and be more responsive, it is equally true that civil society institutions must change. They should engage, not confront their governments. Change must come, and NGOs can be the mid-wives that push forward that agenda. But to do that, they must develop and project a constructive and positive vision for the kind of world they seek for future generations. This vision should not only challenge the status quo, but also challenge the glorification of the past that is projected by some religious extremists.

And a partnership must develop between the business community and the NGOs in each country. Businessmen should support NGOs, not only financially, but by adding their creative ideas and expertise in organization and planning. If civil society is to grow and prosper in the Arab region, such a partnership is essential. Together, they can establish a middle ground between government and extremist movements. And together, business and NGOs can generate ideas and progress that inspire confidence, with the support of government and make change real.

I created a bit of a stir at the parallel conference when I closed my keynote address with a warning. I noted that in light of the continuing riots in France, the Arab world should take steps to address its “guest worker” underclass problem. It is not only a shame that damages the image and moral fiber of a country, it is a time bomb waiting to explode. America faced such a crisis with its “permanent” underclass in the wake of African American urban riots in the 1960s–”and, as the world witnessed after Katrina, this problem is still not resolved in the US. Now France is dealing its underclass rebellion. Still a relatively new problem in parts of the Arab world, the region has been given a wake-up call and, therefore, an opportunity to address this situation early, before it grows.

My warning was simple and direct. These workers clean Arab offices and build Arab cities and yet they remain invisible. They must be seen and their rights must be defended.

I am not a pessimist. The Arab world, rich in history, has an even greater future. Many Arab governments have embarked on reform efforts, and it is a growing topic of discussion across the region. Change will come. But its advent can be hastened through a constructive partnership between government and the private sector, both business and civil society.