This past year has seen real signs of change in the broader Middle East and North Africa. At the beginning of January, we witnessed the historic Presidential elections in the Palestinian Authority. Three weeks later, the people of Iraq showed their determination to pursue a democratic path – and their immense courage – by disregarding the terrorists’ threats and turning out in their millions to vote in an interim government.
There have been further examples throughout the year. In spring, the Lebanese people demonstrated overwhelmingly their desire to exercise their own sovereignty. In May, Kuwait took a major step forward by granting full political rights to women. In September, Egypt held its first multi-candidate Presidential elections, which President Mubarak has indicated will form part of a wider set of political and economic reforms. In the same month, the Algerian people voted to adopt a charter for peace and reconciliation which allows them to confront their painful recent history but also look to a better future. And the Jordanian government has launched a process in which it worked with its citizens to map out a reform programme for the next ten years.
Alongside these concrete measures, there is now also a more open debate about reform and a new willingness to address fundamental topics – such as democratic accountability and participation – which were until recently thought best left untouched. Last year, Arab leaders committed themselves to action at their Arab League Summit in Tunis. Civil society is taking an increasingly prominent role in driving the debate and helping to implement reform. And opinion polls consistently demonstrate that support from ordinary citizens for more democratic government is as high as anywhere in the world.
The region itself has much to gain from political, economic and social reform. The United Nations Arab Human Development Reports have made a detailed, forensic case for such modernisation; it is the key to unlocking the potential of the region, to reconnecting it to the global economy and to offering hope to a growing population of talented, but often disaffected and unemployed, young people.
And the world as a whole will plainly benefit from a more stable and prosperous Middle East and North Africa which sees its future in ever closer ties to the rest of the world. Building partnerships with countries in the region is the key to making progress on vital areas of work from energy security and non-proliferation to economic prosperity migration and counter-terrorism.
So what can the international community do to support this regional commitment to reform and development? We must, of course, continue to work hard to resolve long-running regional conflicts, and in particular, that between Israel and the Palestinians. And we must also keep up momentum on the Millennium Development Goals.
But we can also take advantage of the new desire for progress in the region to engage in honest debate on hitherto very sensitive topics – and to offer practical help. We will have the opportunity to do so at two important meetings later this month. The United Kingdom, as Presidency of both the G8 and the European Union, will play a leading part in both.
On 12 November, Bahrain will host the Forum for the Future. The Forum is part of the wider G8 Broader Middle East and North Africa Plan of Support which focuses on helping the region through practical initiatives; over this year and next, for example, it will provide over $30 million of assistance to fostering the private sector and micro-finance programmes. The Forum itself will concentrate on the two critical issues of raising the quality of education and democratic development.
Uniquely, civil society will participate on an equal footing with governments, presenting recommendations on human rights, the rule of law, corruption, democracy and the empowerment of women. This then will be an event remarkable not only in the range of topics open for discussion but also in the breadth of people participating in those discussions.
Then, at the end of the month, we’ll see the 10th Anniversary Summit of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership – the framework for the European Union’s relationship with its nearest southern neighbours. Again the focus will be very practical. In the past decade, the European Union has spent over nine billion euros on the partnership but its impact has been patchy; many people in the region do not know what the partnership has achieved or indeed have even heard of it. At the summit we want to agree a set of ambitious political and economic targets with our southern Mediterranean partners for the next five to ten years; and we intend to back that up with a substantial increase in assistance for educational development and a special fund for countries making particularly good progress on improving governance.
So most countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the international community, are serious about making progress on modernisation and reform. But this serves to throw into sharper relief the baleful record of those states, such as Syria and Iran, who are ignoring the regional momentum for change. It is particularly regrettable in Iran’s case, which a few years ago was at the cutting edge of debate about reform and modernity. They risk leaving their people – who have much to offer the region and the wider world – behind as others around them thrive. Working within the region to show the real economic and social benefits which come from embracing change can send a powerful message to these people – and to their governments.