Editorial: Reform is not a recipe for chaos in the Middle East - it is an antidote

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Saudi Arabia's Prince Talal bin Abdel-Aziz, a senior member of the royal family, recently called on Arab rulers to introduce political reforms before they are forced to do so under popular pressure. Prince Talal has often been outspoken about the need for reforms in Saudi Arabia and in the greater Arab world, and he has just as often been accurate. Arab leaders would be prudent to take notice of his latest warning.

Across the region, popular pressure and public calls for reform have been on the increase in recent years. Prince Talal warned that movements such as the Kefaya protests in Egypt and the "Independence Uprising" in Lebanon would continue to "escalate and become difficult to control in the future." In light of this inevitability, Prince Talal asked: "Why do rulers not pre-empt these demands and carry out reforms, avoiding marches and demonstrations in order to ward off danger ... to the Arab world?"

It is a stark warning, not unlike the weather warnings issued ahead of Hurricane Katrina: take precautions now to avoid an impending disaster. The advice is simple and straightforward, but surprisingly few Arab leaders have voluntarily heeded this call. Despite the fact that there are hundreds of conferences on the topic of reforming the Arab world and hundreds more proposals from Europe, the United States and the Middle East on how to initiate reforms in the region, we are still witnessing a painfully slow reform process. Washington's recent drive to spread democracy has helped speed up the process of change, but Arab leaders are still dragging their feet.

Reform, many leaders argue, must happen slowly to avoid disruptions to society. Too much, too soon could cause widespread instability. This and other excuses such as security threats or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have been used to justify a lack of progress on the reform front. But the truth is that Arab leaders simply fear that a wave of change would spell the end of their power.

Ironically, the longer Arab leaders wait to institute such improvements, the more likely it is that their fears will be realized. Social and economic pressures for reform will only continue to increase in the future. Steps must be taken now to prevent these pressures from reaching a boiling point. As Prince Talal has rightly pointed out, reforms are not a recipe for chaos; rather, they are an antidote.

In issuing his call for reform across the Arab world, Prince Talal also called for political reforms and the introduction of a constitution in Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, his suggestions were remarkably similar to those of three reformists who were jailed during King Fahd's reign. The three activists, who were later released under a royal pardon after King Abdullah assumed the throne, were imprisoned after they urged the kingdom's rulers to move toward a constitutional monarchy and speed up political reforms.

Perhaps the fact that a member of the royal family is issuing the same calls that landed three reformists in jail is a sign that Saudi Arabia is finally opening up to the idea of reform and heeding the warnings before it is too late. One hopes that other Arab leaders will quickly follow suit.

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