In mid-February, the London-based daily Al-Hayat published an Arabic version of a US working paper that was to be presented to the G-8 summit at Sea Island, Georgia, from June 8 to 10. The paper, which was prepared “for G-8 Sherpas,” or senior advisors, outlined what the Americans have called the Greater Middle East Partnership (GME). The aim of the US is to see the GME project adopted by the wider G8, so that it can act as a basis to help “forge a long-term partnership with the Greater Middle East’s reform leaders and launch a coordinated response to promote political, economic, and social reform in the region.” In mid-March,New York Times reported that the document would not be presented the Sea Island summit after all. However, a senior US official privately noted this was incorrect, and that what may change is the way the document’s ideas are proposed: rather than be submitted unilaterally as G8 policy, it may be presented, more diplomatically, as a response to Arab requests. The three broad guidelines of future G8 action, according to the document, are the promotion of democracy and good governance, the building of a knowledge society, and the expansion of economic opportunities.
In early March, in the run-up to Arab League summit in Tunis at the end of the month, there was considerable criticism directed against GME in the Arab world. Arab states were divided into three groups on how to respond to the initiative, with one group supporting a dialogue on it, a second advocating caution, and a third calling for outright rejection for what was deemed meddling in Arab affairs. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, for example, declared: “We should not give others the opportunity to map out our future, define our course, or work on reforming us. We must take the initiative ourselves.” Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa of Bahrain noted that “imposition of any foreign view point separately is not in the interests of countries of the region.”
In a commentary in the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, Egyptian commentator Mohamed Sid-Ahmad spoke for many Arabs when he noted that affirmation of a “greater Middle East,” by expanding the geographical boundaries of the region, “dilutes the importance of the Palestinian problem and demotes it from its central position on the political stage of the Middle East to a marginal position as just one of several ‘hot’ issues plaguing a much wider region.”
However, even a cursory reading of the US working paper shows it to be a remarkably satisfying wish list of reform for the region, with many of its principles already being applied through bilateral programs. Nor were the framers intimidated by the unilateralist preferences dominating in some quarters in Washington. Aside from relying heavily on the UNDP’s Arab Human Development Report of 2002, which was written exclusively by Arabs, the document emphasized that “genuine reform in the GME must be driven internally” through the civil societies of the region. In other words, the G-8, if the GME project is agreed, has the potential to be a hybrid Marshall Plan and Helsinki process for the Middle East. So, why is there such animosity toward it in the Arab world and Iran? The easy answer is that no leader wants the West to advance social, political and economic processes that will undeniably erode their own power. As the halting reform efforts in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria have proven, change is only acceptable when it can ensure, or enhance, the authority of existing regimes. From the perspective of most Arab populations, however, bona fide reform must imply a possible change of leadership. Another fear in the region, as Sid-Ahmad suggested, is that GME would simply detract from the centrality of the Palestinian problem. While no one would quibble with the necessity to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the insistence on using it as a benchmark to judge GME carries with it a high price tag. For one thing, Middle East reform must not be held hostage to a conflict most states in the region cannot control; for another, true regional reform would, one assumes, positively affect the behavior of Israelis and Palestinians as much as it would that of surrounding states.
However, there is a more fundamental reason for the regional animosity to GME, and it comes from the two very different philosophies defining state-to-state relations – one prevailing in the Middle East, the other in the West. In the past decade or so, the concept of state sovereignty has been recast in the West, so that states can no longer hide behind it to shield their more harmful policies. Whether due to humanitarian intervention, international efforts to curtail war crimes, regional cooperation projects, or the expanded role of the UN, state boundaries are eroding at breakneck speed. Even American neo-conservatives are, above all else, enemies of sovereignty as a barrier to the dissemination of Western, or indeed American, values.
This is alien to the Middle East, where brutish regimes have always received a free ride (including from the US) on the grounds that outsiders had no right to interfere in their affairs. What emerged was a conspiracy of silence, as all were complicit in the nasty order of things. However, GME – much like the Euro-Med partnership agreements or the US Middle East Partnership Initiative – is a reaffirmation that what is bad for the Middle East can also, ultimately, be bad for the rest of the world. That was the message of September 11, and the inability of the region to fully gauge the importance of that day is why so many have trouble understanding the importance of GME, as well as the West’s commitment to regional reform.