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29 September 2003

State's Burns Urges Arab Reforms "From Within"

Offers U.S. support and calls for private sector to play a constructive role

By Stephen Kaufman
Washington File Staff Writer

Detroit -- Stressing the need for Arab governments and societies to enact democratic and economic reforms "from within," Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns warned of the "hard reality" of the 21st century that countries which "adapt, open up and seize the economic initiative will prosper" while those that do not "will fall further and further behind."

Burns, speaking at the U.S. -- Arab Economic Forum in Detroit September 29, stressed that enduring democratic change and economic modernization "cannot be imposed from without" by the United States or any other party.

While the United States can play a key role, "success in these endeavors requires real partnership," he said. It must be a "two way street in which we in the U.S. government actually listen to advice and criticism and proposals from the region."

Burns added that he is encouraged by "the extent of self examination under way" in the Arab world today, as well as tangible steps some countries in the region are taking toward political and economic reform.

He said the present time is critical for the region, as many people in the Arab world and the United States are questioning their relationship and hold doubts about the other side.

"If ever there were a time for looking honestly at where we've been together and for speaking some plain truth about where we're headed, this is it," said Burns.

The United States, he said, has a clear four-part agenda for the region: reconstructing Iraq as a prosperous democratic nation, bringing about peace between Israelis and Palestinians, combating terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the region, and "supporting homegrown efforts for economic and political reform in the region, which has for too long known too little of either."

The solution to the agenda items "will not come easily or neatly or quickly," but those goals offer "a basis for making common cause with people and leaderships" and a basis "for hope," he said.

Burns said democratic change in the region would be gradual, due to many challenges and political pressures. "[S]ome people may try to interpret our use of the word ‘gradual' to mean just cosmetic or constantly postponed changes. That would be a mistake," he said. The Bush administration is calling for real changes that would help the development of civil society, reduce corruption, create an independent judiciary, and ensure free and credible elections, he said.

"To hold Arab states to a lesser standard is to insult the tremendous capacity for learning and development the Arab people have demonstrated throughout their history," he said.

The assistant secretary cited Jordan as an example of how reforms are "making a difference." Between 1998 and 2003, that country's exports to the United States grew from $2 million to over $6 million, and as a result, more job opportunities were created, including for Jordanian women, he said.

The improvement "is no accident," he said. "It is the result of bold Jordanian decisions to reform and the creative use of U.S. policy tools" such as Qualified Industrial Zones and a bilateral Free Trade Agreement signed in 2000.

Success also requires tapping into U.S. private sector talent, Burns said, and he told business executives in the audience that they would always know better than public officials "how to make the private sector work and build a sense of entrepreneurship."

Their input is important, he said, because "[w]e have to get beyond the conversation that is focused only among government officials and regional political elites."

Offering a private sector perspective, Carly Fiorina, the chairman and CEO of Hewlett Packard, said earlier in the day that the Middle East "could be the economic story of the next decade."

"As a business leader, I can tell you that we see this region as a potentially powerful trading block of more than 200 million customers," she said.

The role of the private sector is to commit its energies and resources in order to help build more prosperous communities and nations throughout the world, she said, adding that it could be particularly effective in demonstrating how new technology could be used and in offering its managerial expertise to better enable its Middle Eastern counterparts to maximize that new technology.

This investment, in money, technology and people, is not only a "right and good" endeavor to help the people of the region, but it is also "smart business," she argued. For a company to grow, "more and more people must have a sustainable future."

Echoing the Bush administration's call for the Middle East to become a free trade area, she called for more trade between the countries of the region, noting that less than 7 percent of trade was occurring among neighboring countries, compared with Europe, where two-thirds of trade in goods and services was with fellow European nations.

"Just imagine the story that could be told by 2010 if all 22 Arab nations worked together to speak with one voice in the global economy," she said. "Rather than 22 separate markets, each with their own rules and barriers, imagine if they could find a way ... to create an open and inclusive society, one that is focused on transparency and accountability and trust. In short, all of the things necessary for sustained business development, but also good for society and good for politics."

Creating a stable Middle East is more than a political challenge, she said. "It is also an economic challenge, an education challenge, and a diversity challenge."

Besides economic reforms and the need to improve education to give all people in the region an equal chance at success, Fiorina said, the global economy has taught that "the most successful societies are the most inclusive societies," pointing to the fact that the U.S. economy had its largest growth when women and minorities became more empowered and integrated into the highest echelons of the educational, political and business worlds.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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