A view from Washington

by Pamela and Robert Pelletreau
The premature leak in Al-Hayat of a draft of President Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative drew sharp criticism from across the Arab world, both for its lack of consultation with the intended “targets” of American attention, and for its failure to mention the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Absent from the commentary, however, was criticism of the substance of the American proposals, drawn mainly from the two Arab Human Development Reports (AHDRs 2002 and 2003), which were the work of leading Arab researchers and academics drawn from across the region.

In fact, in recent years the need for evolutionary political reform has become increasingly recognized as a priority by Arab governments. The Arab world today is a laboratory of experimentation with new forms of political participation. One of the challenges posed by the American initiative to reform-minded Arab governments and thinkers was how to establish ownership and some control over the pace and depth of political change within their societies, rather than cede it to outside hands. Self-respect and common sense both dictate that reform initiatives generated from within the region will have greater legitimacy and chances for success than those advanced by outside powers.

Building on the AHDRs, the Bibliotheka Alexandrina conference of Arab intellectuals and representatives of Arab civil society adopted a declaration of reform priorities in March 2004, and a meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers in Cairo shortly thereafter proposed to present it to the Arab Summit meeting in Tunis in late March. The thinking was that an Arab Summit resolution built on the Alexandria declaration and earlier Arab-originated proposals would restore the initiative to Arab hands and, in effect, save the Americans from themselves by offering them and European governments the opportunity to endorse an Arab plan rather than continuing to try to promote their own, which had already been labeled as “unacceptable” by leaders and journalists within the region. Unfortunately, violence and traditional Arab differences intervened to prevent, or at least postpone, this potentially positive outcome.

Israel’s assassination of Sheikh Yassin just a few days before the Summit was scheduled to open caused a number of Arab heads of state to decline to participate. Traditional hardliners, moreover, wanted to focus the Summit’s deliberations on condemning Israel’s action, rather than on extending a hand of peace or fashioning a reform agenda. In this atmosphere of rising tensions, Tunisia saw no choice but to postpone the gathering, in order to allow more time for Arab governments to explore a common stance.

Paradoxically, this postponement has unexpectedly breathed new life into the Americans’ Greater Middle East Initiative, which even its champions had been prepared to see subsumed in a reform plan coming from the region itself. In addition, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Lugar, has proposed in a March 31 speech at the Brookings Institution the creation of a Greater Middle East Twenty-First Century Trust to fund reform proposals from recipient countries. In the weeks ahead, leading up to the G-8 meeting in June, we are likely to see these U.S. proposals or parts of them promoted by U.S. officials, both to Arab governments and to European counterparts.

At present, one of the principal vehicles that the United States can draw on to help implement reform proposals, whether from the region or at Washington’s initiative, is a relatively new program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). MEPI, for which $150 million is requested in the President’s budget submission to Congress for 2005, expresses its goals in the language of reform: economic reform, political reform, educational reform and women’s empowerment. Proposals for funding through MEPI can be regional, or for projects in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, West Bank and Gaza, or Yemen. Iraqis can be included in regional activities (where legal and appropriate) but US anti-terrorism legislation prohibits funding for activities in Syria.

There is also a MEPI grants program for field-generated proposals available to all U.S. Near East Embassies (except Damascus) and to the Consulate General in Jerusalem.
All four MEPI reform areas may be of interest to Arab world reformers. The reform areas are consonant with liberal economic and democratic values, and emphasize the importance of opportunities for women and youth. A key element is the creation of links and partnerships among Arab, U.S. and global private sector businesses, elements of civil society and governments to achieve sustainable reform in the region.

The economic reform goals in trade, investment and business focus on global competitiveness, mobilization of foreign and domestic investment and facilitation of the growth of revenue and employment in micro-enterprises and small and medium enterprises. Political reform goals include the strengthening of the role of free and independent media, promotion of the rule of law and accountable, effective government institutions and strengthening of democratic practices and civil society. Education reform goals address the expansion of access to basic and post secondary education for all people, especially girls and women, the improvement of quality of education and the development of employable skills. The goal of women’s empowerment supports the reduction of all barriers to women’s full participation in society.

The goals described above fall within fairly traditional areas; what distinguishes MEPI is its search for innovative and creative ideas and original, results-oriented projects and its commitment to working with local partners in the Middle East and North Africa to achieve these goals. Full details can be found at the MEPI web site:


Building, as it does, on the recommendations of reformers in the Arab world, MEPI provides an incentive for interested groups and persons in the region to reach out to possible American partners, as well as for American partners to initiate or reciprocate in partnering and participating in desirable reforms. It represents a way that the United States can cooperate in implementing some of the priorities that Arab world reformers have themselves identified without trying to impose a comprehensive American blueprint on the region.

- Robert H. Pelletreau, former Ambassador of the United States and Pamela Day Pelletreau, PH.D. This article is part of a series of views on the America’s "Greater Middle East" initiative for reform, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
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The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective
Let us be Democratic about Democracy
The Greater Middle East Initiative
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East
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Other articles in this series

The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership by Senator Richard G. Lugar
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East by Gidi Grinstein
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges by Shafeeq Ghabra
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East by Nizar Abdel-Kader
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective by Dr. Duygu Bazoglu Sezer
Let us be Democratic about Democracy by Dr. Abdul Aziz Said
The Greater Middle East Initiative by Richard W. Murphy
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required by Hazem Saghiyeh
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out by Daoud Kuttab
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East by Dr. Steven Everts