Peace in the Middle East depends on two things: settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and modernization of the Arab regimes in the region. Attention has usually focused on the first item, as the consequences of failure have long been plainly visible. But in recent months — especially since Sept. 11, 2001 — more and more emphasis is being put on the second. Indeed, it has become apparent that the two are inextricably linked. As Arab societies have been unable to accommodate rising demands for political participation, Israel has become a distraction and a convenient scapegoat for many of those countries’ failures.

For much of the postwar era, the West has accepted regimes in the Middle East that can only be called feudal as a means of safeguarding access to the region’s vast supplies of oil. The willingness to turn a blind eye to repressive governments has locked the West into a perilous spiral. The Arab “street” sees Western nations as supporting antidemocratic regimes. The masses’ rhetoric then takes on an anti-Western component, which gives Western governments even more reason to support the existing order. Anti-Western sentiment intensifies and Arab governments have yet more reasons to crack down on dissent since protests criticize both domestic and foreign policy.

Any would-be reformers are tempered by the Iranian experience. Then, U.S. support for democratic change resulted in the overthrow of a U.S. ally, the rise of a government whose raison d’etre is implacable hostility to the U.S. and the reshaping of the strategic landscape of the entire region.

Nonetheless, the status quo is unsupportable. The failures in the Middle East are manifest. The 280 million citizens and 22 countries in the Arab League had a combined gross domestic product of $531 billion in 1999, producing less than Spain. The average Arab citizen earns 14 percent of the average in countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. If the Arab world’s per capita growth rate of 0.5 percent annually over the past two decades continues, it will take the average Arab citizen 140 years to double his income, compared with less than a decade for citizens elsewhere.

A recent report by the United Nations Development Program concluded that women in the Middle East suffer from unequal citizenship and legal entitlements. Political and economic participation among Arab women remains the lowest in the world when measured by the numbers of women in Parliaments, Cabinets and the workforce. Most are denied equal opportunity in jobs and wages; more than half are illiterate.

In 2001, Freedom House, the New York-based monitor of political and civil rights, ranked Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria among the 10 least-free nations in the world.

On Dec. 12, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell launched the “U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative” to help these nations overcome this sad state of affairs. While laudable and long overdue, that effort will produce nothing without the drive for change within the Middle Eastern governments themselves. That underscores the significance of the vision laid out recently by Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, for the modernization of the Arab world through increasing political participation, promoting economic integration and guaranteeing mutual security.

Prince Abdullah’s proposed “Arab Charter” declares “that internal reform and enhanced political participation in the Arab states are essential steps for building Arab capabilities, and for providing conditions for a comprehensive awakening and development of Arab human resources.” It calls on Arab countries to “boost our defense capabilities” and to “stand united against any Arab state guilty of aggression on another Arab state.” Finally, it recommends an Arab free-trade zone by 2005 and a tariffs union by 2010 to create a Common Arab Market.

There is both more — and less — to the proposal than meets the eye. Noticeably absent from the document are any specifics, as well as any mention of the word “democracy.” The prince’s plan is an attempt to deflect external change and ensure that Arabs control their own destinies. In other words, the Saudi proposal is an attempt to head off the more far-reaching effects of the U.S. initiative by substituting a homegrown plan. The call to boost defense capabilities is a similar bid to ensure that regional governments have some say in constructing a regional order in the event that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is deposed.

Such tactical maneuvers are to be expected, but they will not change the underlying reality of the Middle East. Pressures for more political participation by Arab masses are rising. Some form of accommodation must be encouraged. The alternative could be a conflagration that will make the Arab-Israeli confrontation look tame in comparison.

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