KUWAIT, Kuwait, May 24 (UPI) -- If Arab leaders gathered in a summit meeting in Tunis this past weekend were to qualify for a report card, most would score low marks for lack of progress, absence of political freedom, deficit of democracy and human rights abuses.
While the developed world has progressed over the last decade, the Arab world has largely stagnated, lamented Turki al-Hammad, a Jordanian-born political scientist.
"The whole world has changed but the Middle East has not," said al-Hammad, adding the reason the area remained in conflict was "because the Middle East is going backward instead of forward."
Indeed, wars, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, political instability and lack of democratic reforms have kept the Middle East in disarray throughout much of the past decade.
As al-Hammad points out, 10-15 years ago, the Gulf states were ahead of many countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, which were largely economic basket cases and virtual police states.
Generous oil revenues allowed the Gulf sheikdoms to modernize on many fronts. However, they fell behind on political reform and women's and minority rights and other basic democratic advancements, which in some instances have encouraged the rise of religious fundamentalism.
Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, with the world's second-largest oil reserves, chose to squander billions of dollars on armaments and wasted dreams of regional grandeur instead of investing in the real future of the country -- its citizens. True, Saddam was an exception in the region, but while other Gulf states spent billions on their countries' infrastructures, they failed to move ahead with opening up to democratic changes.
A number of countries in the region continue to "use the excuse of the Arab-Israeli conflict," to allow them to rule through edicts and emergency laws, Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Sheik Mohammed Fadlallah, told David Ignatius.
At the close of the Arab League summit Sunday, Secretary General Amr Moussa promised reforms in the Arab world would start "right away." Of course the League holds no authority by which it can impose change on any of its 22 members, of which many are in dire need of reform.
The Palestinian Authority under the leadership of Yasser Arafat is rife with corruption. Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are considerably worse off today than they were 10 years ago, as the PA has been accused of squandering funds worth millions.
Looking back with the luxury of time on one's side, Israel, too, has not escaped the Middle East's regression. The growing improbability of a peace deal is making the country retrench behind a wall/fence/ditch/barrier, wrongly believing it will provide security in place of a lasting peace. Its military, once praised for its surgical strikes, has taken to using missiles fired from attack helicopters that often claim innocent lives along with the intended targets.
While the Middle East regressed politically, Europe, meanwhile, particularly the "New Europe," has been the most successful Cinderella story of the planet. The former Eastern Bloc has shed the chains of communism, and in light years leaps and bounds joined the 21st century, leaving the Middle East behind in its dust.
Despite its richness in natural resources, the Middle East continues to lag behind the rest of the developed world in bringing about democratic reforms. The proliferation of the Internet, cellular telephones and satellite television has allowed many Arabs greater access to information than ever before, yet, as Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed out, the entire Arab world of 260 million people has a smaller combined gross domestic product than Spain with 40 million.
"It is as if we are an isolated island," said Jasem Mohammed al-Kharafi, speaker of Kuwait's National Assembly. The absence of participation in public debate and in political decision-making has helped keep the Arab world several steps behind other countries with similar GDPs, levels of education and lifestyles. In most countries in the region, political parties are still banned, and the press is closely controlled, monitored and censored.
Indeed, as Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheik Sabah al Ahmad al-Jaber al Sabah told a conference in Kuwait last week, "It's the people's right to determine their future." And that is precisely what is not happening in many parts of the Arab world.
With the exception of Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon, Arab countries have either been ruled by kings, emirs and sultans, whose absolute powers are passed on to their progenies, or by self-appointed presidents-for-life, who in many cases try to do the same. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, has yet to appoint a vice president.
The Western notion of democracy remains a rarity in the Middle East. "Our democracy concerns a mere 11 percent of the citizens," writes Ali Ahmad Al-Baghli in Kuwait's Arab Times. "In my country," he writes, "the Cabinet issued a shameful law in the 80s which bans the naturalization of non-Muslims." And in neighboring Saudi Arabia, churches are banned and the practice of any religion other than Islam is not permitted.
The Arab Times editorialist decries Kuwait's democracy as "retarded (when) compared to the civilized democracy of India," a mostly Hindu nation whose noted nuclear scientist president is a Muslim. Still, some progress is being made with the Kuwaiti Cabinet announcing just last week that women would be allowed to vote and seek public office.
Given the immense richness of the area -- from oil, to natural gas and its multitude of minerals, given Middle Easterners' natural flair for business and their success at it -- there is little excuse for the socio-political retardation in the area. "We must identify the past and not repeat its mistakes," said a participant at last week's Kuwait conference.
"Here are the facts, whether we like them or not. A number of countries have no respect for human rights," said al Hammad, the political scientist. The need for change in the Arab world was echoed by his Syrian colleague, Sami al-Khaymi, who said, "There is dire need to change the Arab mind." No one will argue that point.
But still, there is room for optimism. A few countries are beginning to introduce reform, albeit at their own pace, such as Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Tunisia and Algeria, the latter of which has seen a mushrooming of independent newspapers. Others are under mounting pressure from the Bush administration to change.
The other country offering a glint of hopefulness in the region is Iran -- not an Arab country -- and which is most likely to head towards greater democratic changes within the next decade. "It is not right to represent Iran with its ruling mullahs, who are (going to be) seriously in trouble when young Iranians enter society," commented Amir Naghshineh-Pour, director of the San Diego-based Iran Alliance Public Relations.
As Arab leaders head back home from Tunis to ponder on their next moves toward building reform in their respective countries, they need to remember the following. For democracy to catch on, there are two key ingredients, without which, all hope for change would be wasted. First, a free press is a prerequisite for a free and democratic society.
Memo to all al-Jazeera bashers: The Qatari-based satellite channel -- and its clones -- may not be perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. The Arabic television channels have pushed ajar the door to democracy in the Middle East and removed the monopoly on news from state-controlled media. Instead of being fought, they should be encouraged and given constructive criticism.
The second requirement is independent political parties that can function freely and without fear of government interference and reprisal.
As President George W. Bush prepares to unveil his Greater Middle East Initiative at the G8 summit in Sea Island, Ga., from June 8-10, he should impress upon Middle Eastern leaders that talking about democratic reforms without meeting these two requirements -- a free press and political parties -- is a waste of time.
(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)