The ‘Greater Middle East Initiative’ and the Arab Culture of Rejection
A new American plan entitled "Greater Middle East Initiative" (1) calls for providing massive economic aid and security arrangements to encourage Middle Eastern countries to introduce major economic, judicial and political reforms conduct free elections empower women promote human rights and adopt market economies. The initiative borrows some of its ideas from the United Nations Arab Development Reports issued in 2002 and 2003, an indication that the problems plaguing the region are caused by political and economic stagnation, and not by Israel or the United States.

In an article published in Survival in spring 2003, Phillip Gordon writes that there are at least four main assumptions behind U.S. President George W. Bush's strategy for the Middle East. This paper focuses on the first and most basic of these assumptions, namely that the status quo has become unacceptable. For decades the U.S. basically had a deal with repressive regimes throughout the Arab world: They could run their countries more or less the way they wanted, as long as they were willing to sell oil to the West at reasonable prices, act as U.S. strategic allies, and not threaten the Middle Eastern regional order. Both liberal idealists on the left and neo-conservatives on the right had long been questioning this deal on moral grounds, but after September 11, 2001, this arrangement faced serious trouble. The price the U.S. had to pay for its old policy had become all too evident. This eventually prompted Bush to introduce in his speech of February 2004 the new plan dubbed as a "New Vision for a Greater Middle East."

Fear of Change

The immediate official Arab reaction was to reject Bush's new paradigm for the Middle East, which begs the question why should the Arab systems fear change? What makes them dread this American vision when it seeks comprehensive reforms in the Arab world?

In fact, reform should not be an American or a European demand; it should spring from a genuine desire on the part of the Arab states to initiate the required changes in order to join the 21st century. How correct is it at this point to fall back on the age-old rationale that Arab traditions and culture cannot tolerate nor accommodate Western concepts of liberty, equality, democracy, better educational opportunities, women's liberation, and social and economic development? Are these concepts so truly foreign to the Arab way of life that they should be flatly denied?

What Is Wrong? What Needs to Be Done?

When one Middle Eastern country, Israel, with no natural resources such as oil, has a gross national product (GNP) equal to more than that of most Arab countries put together; or when the GNP of all the Arab countries combined is less than that of Spain alone; or when more than 40 percent of the Arab population cannot read or write, then there is cause for concern. The Arabs must pose and ponder: What is wrong? What needs to be done? And how can we move ahead?
The grounds on which the American proposal was so coldly received have, therefore, to be addressed very seriously. One reason given is that the implementation of democracy in the Arab world would eventually lead to anarchy. A second motive is that the cause of democracy in the Arab world, and even in Palestine, cannot and should not be promoted as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict has not been resolved and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory has not been achieved. A third cause is the suspicion that the Bush initiative would result in American interference in the region's domestic affairs and in the domination of the existing political systems. Finally, one explanation says efforts to promote good governance, democracy, accountability, transparency and prosperity in the Greater Middle East Plan cannot run parallel to the implementation of the Road Map for peace.

Missed Opportunities

This is not the first time that we have been rushed into rejecting international initiatives aimed at promoting peace and development in our region, even without giving them a second thought. Abba Eban once noted that the "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" - and I believe this is also true of the Arabs as a whole. From the UN Partition Resolution of 1947, to the Rogers Peace Plan of 1968, to the Camp David summits of 1978 and 2000, to the Greater Middle East Vision of 2004, we have been missing one opportunity after another. This myopic rejectionist mentality should be the first to change. This means the U.S. proposal deserves to be viewed on its own terms- not whether the people of the region have been consulted or not, or whether it addresses the Arab-Israeli conflict or not. Continued interest in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is commendable but should not be exclusivist. At the end of the day, the most important question to be asked is whether the U.S. plan is in the interest of the Arab people or not.

It has always been claimed that the unequivocal U.S. support of Israeli aggressive policies against the Palestinians is what fuels much of the anger among the Arab masses against American foreign policies in the Middle East. As a Palestinian, I must say this should not be another excuse to exploit the Palestinian cause in order to reject an initiative that aims to promote the general welfare of the Arab people. Seeking a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East should not overshadow all other initiatives that might, if realized, help toward that endeavor.

Opposing such an agenda will be another missed opportunity. It may encourage the U.S. administration to lean on other unilateral initiatives, such as Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. Now that Bush has been reelected for a second term, we hope he will stand firm by this policy.

In my view, initiatives such as the Barcelona process and the Road Map, which aim to bring peace, democracy, human dignity and prosperity to our region, are in the interest of the Arab people; they are opportunities that should not be missed. The Greater Middle East Initiative is one such opportunity.

(1)The initiative was presented at the G8 summit in June 2004.The term Middle East here includes the Arab countries, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.