Thursday, August 11, 2005

Middle East Reform: Revolution versus Evolution

It is obvious that the Middle East need serious reform. I have addressed the reason for the rise of Islamism here – that it is a reaction to tyranny in the region. The issue is at what pace. Do we want drastic change like we did in Iraq – with all the risks and uncertainty involves? Or do we want incremental change?

The answer is depended. It depends on the level of willingness of the regime to implement change and how much persuasive power do we have over the regime in question. Let looks at Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that we all abhor the social-political condition in the kingdom. But many (particularly on the Left) often use Saudi Arabia to oppose our war in Iraq. They state that the Saudi Arabia is as oppressive as or even more so than Iraq. The comparison in term of level of oppression is impossible and irrelevant.

As I state earlier, it depends on the level of willingness of the regime to implement change and the persuasive power we have over the regime. Saddam Iraq was irredeemable. There was no possibility that Saddam would ever reform his country regardless how much the world put pressure on him. The Saudi (and to some extent Mubarak) has showed some willingness to reform. It is extremely slow but it is happening. And in the case of Saudi Arabia, Westerners see the reform as miniscule and negligent. But putting in the political context of an extremely reactionary and fundamentalist country, the reform is a major step – if not historical and unprecedented. From the Economist (subscription is required):

The late King Fahd moved cautiously to modernise the economy and made the first tiny steps towards a semblance of democracy by appointing a consultative council. Crown Prince Abdullah expanded the council and even allowed it to question ministers—within limits. More recently, he let half the seats on the country's toothless local councils be elected on multi-candidate (though non-party) slates, with women excluded from both voting and standing.

Of course, compare to our modern democracy, the reform seem insignificant. The Saudi is using the “crawl, walk, and run” incremental stages. And at this stage, it is crawling at the pace of a snail – but it is crawling nonetheless. We would like to see women driving and having more rights – but this is better than nothing.

And this is not the only reform ongoing.

So too have small but real reformist measures, such as privatising and opening chunks of the economy, purging schoolbooks of hate-mongering material and this year's holding of municipal elections.

And the death of King Fahd should facilitate the process of reform (another Economist’s article).

Abdullah, crown prince for 23 years, assumed the throne automatically and immediately named his half-brother, the long-serving defence minister, Prince Sultan, aged 80 or so, as his successor. In the past the pair have been seen as bitter rivals, with the more reform-minded Abdullah being serially thwarted by Sultan's powerful Sudairi branch of the family, named after King Abdel Aziz's favourite wife. Abdullah may be too frail to push hard for change, but any initiatives he does take may meet less resistance, now that Sultan is assured of eventual accession.

Of course, we should not leave the reform process in the hand of the House of Saud. They went forward with reform because we put pressure on them. Steady pressure is needed to keep up the pace of reform.

Mr Bush should now urge the new king to move a lot faster than he dared to do as crown prince—for instance, by bringing in a more tolerant educational system, facing down the most bigoted clerics, widening the scope of representative government, opening the budget to scrutiny, curbing royal privilege, giving women a voice and a vote, and sowing a culture of tolerance, pluralism and debate. The consultative council should become a properly elected parliament, perhaps with a college of princes serving as an upper chamber. In the end—“ready” or not—Saudis have as much right to democracy as Iraqis, or indeed anyone else.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Mixed Humor said...

You make valid points Minh and I share your belief in incremental change, or as I've refered to it in the past; "phased reform." Rhetorically the U.S. government should continue to be very vocal about their support for democracy and human freedom for all, it was this verbal support that provided hope for millions behind the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War.

I have witnessed the defense of the anti-Iraq war position through proclamations that we are still supporting regimes in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc. The bottom line is that you cannot build Rome overnight. It would be logistically impossible to address all of these issues with tangible action and the one constant of foreign policy is that you sometimes are forced to deal with the lesser threatning situation in order to address a more threatening situation.

Without cooperation from nations like Pakistan in the global war on terror, it would be much more difficult to achieve victories against al Qaeda and aligned Islamic militant organizations. It is true that Musharaff is a dictator, but right now the necessity to fight al Qaeda and radical Islamists takes presedence over promotion of democracy in Pakistan.

It's a slow process that will require all of the resources, dedication and motivation that western society can muster. You have to pick and choose your battles.

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