Monday 29 March 2004
Last Update 29 March 2004 12:00 am
JEDDAH, 29 March 2004 — The postponement of the Arab summit throws the ball in the courts of individual Arab states, who must realize that reform is overdue, a senior member of the Shoura Council said yesterday.
“We must realize that the time has come for political and social reforms,” the head of the consultative body’s foreign affairs committee, Muhammad Al-Hulwah, told the French news agency AFP.
Such reforms must reconcile international changes with local traditions, “enabling us to interact with the world while preserving our values,” Al-Hulwah said after Tunisia called off the summit it had been due to host today.
The 11th-hour postponement followed bickering over political reform among Arab foreign ministers.
“It was clear that the summit was having a difficult time due to differences over the restructuring of the league, internal reforms, and major regional issues, particularly the Palestinian issue,” said Al-Hulwah.
It had been hoped that Arab heads of state would “draw up the guidelines for internal reforms, leaving implementation to individual Arab countries depending on their social makeup,” he said.
Now that this has not happened, “the ball is back in the courts of individual Arab states... who must take the initiative and introduce genuine reforms by developing institutions of civil society, giving women their due role and applying transparency in their media,” he said.
Al-Hulwah did not think the summit flop would necessarily strengthen the hand of the United States, whose “Greater Middle East Initiative” was widely seen by Arab governments as an attempt to dictate democratization.
“The best way of responding to plans coming from abroad is to come up with an alternative... The United States will accept (what the Arabs choose for themselves) if it sees Arab states embarking on the path of reform,” he said.
Where Saudi Arabia is concerned, Al-Hulwah said he believed political participation “starts from the bottom up, not the other way round,” hence the decision to begin with municipal elections.
“Our media have also gone a long away in becoming transparent over the past two years, we have set up a human rights committee, and there is talk of forming labor committees,” he said.
Saudi authorities promised in October 2003 to organize the partial municipal elections within a year.
Al-Hulwah said the government was doing the groundwork necessary to hold the elections as planned next October, and it would be hard to judge before then if similar elections should be held for the 120-member Shoura Council.
“We cannot say that it was a positive sign,” Al-Hulwah admitted when asked about the recent arrest of a group of pro-reform activists.
“But the differences are over whether reforms should be introduced quickly or gradually. The government is caught between those who want speedy reforms and others who want to go slow,” he added.