US-backed reform forum meets in UAE amid doubts

ABU DHABI - A forum on reform in the Middle East convened in Abu Dhabi on Sunday amid Arab doubts about the US-backed initiative but with Washington insisting it is serious about promoting democracy.

By (AFP)

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Published: Sun 19 Oct 2008, 10:55 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 7:34 PM

Arab officials said political change must come from within the region and warned against yielding to outside pressure.

“Reform in the Middle East is above all a national demand,” Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, told the Fifth Forum for the Future, co-chaired by his country and Japan.

“It is a necessity for the present and the future,” he told the ministerial meeting.

But “frustration” in the region as a result of the deadlocked Middle East peace process, and problems of “poverty, illiteracy, extremism and unemployment are factors which are not conducive to a prosperous future.”

The meeting was the fifth since the forum was launched by US President George W. Bush in 2004 at a time when Washington was professing high aspirations for democratic reform in the Arab world following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The forum aimed to promote political, social and economic reforms in the Middle East and North Africa, with the backing of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations.

Morocco hosted the first edition, followed by Bahrain the year after and Jordan in 2006. The 2007 events took place in both Germany and Yemen.

Political reform in the Arab world topped the agenda of the Abu Dhabi conference, which was attended by 35 Arab countries, some G8 nations and civil society representatives.

Some activists have voiced doubts about the usefulness of the forum, arguing that it has made little difference so far and is unlikely to break new ground in the twilight of the Bush administration.

Since its launch, the forum “has been going around in circles,” Tunisia’s Slaheddine Jourchi told AFP.

“Arab governments believe that their non-governmental organisations are influenced by the West, while the NGOs believe that the West is too accommodating toward their governments,” said Jourchi, one of about 60 delegates from Arab NGOs who submited recommendations to the ministerial meeting after three-day deliberations in Dubai.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi articulated Arab governments’ resistance to any outside pressure for reform.

“Any reform which is imposed and not accepted by the states and peoples of the region is doomed,” he told the forum.

In a thinly veiled reference to Western states, Kurbi warned that civil society organisations should not serve as “a means of pressure on their governments, and even less as an alternative” to ruling regimes.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte begged to differ with the view that little progress has been made in democratising the Arab world since the forum was launched.

“Citizens in the region now have more opportunities to decide how their societies will be governed by participating as voters and candidates for political office,” he told the gathering.

David Kramer, US assistant secretary for democracy and human rights, said Washington will remain committed to democracy in the Middle East irrespective of who succeeds Bush in the White House.

“The United States as a country, and regardless of administration, will remain firmly committed to democracy, freedom and modernisation in the Middle East. We see it as a national interest, just as it is for countries in the region,” he told AFP.

A “Foundation for the Future,” set up in March in Jordan to help Arab NGOs, has so far raised 25 million dollars, according to its president, Nabila Hamza.

Germany on Sunday announced a one-million-dollar contribution to the foundation.

The sixth edition of the forum will take place in Morocco in 2009.

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