12 November 2004 - 14 November 2004

Political, social and economic change in the Middle East

Chair: Mr Mark Malloch Brown

On the day on which the Palestinian people laid Yasser Arafat to rest, Ditchley’s last conference of 2004 started, under a cold blue sky, to examine the prospects for reform and develop in the Middle East.  We did not attempt to assess the chances of a revived Peace Process;  Arafat’s death and the re-election of President Bush were too recent for that.  Rather, we aimed to review the region’s potential to use the opportunities of globalisation to modernise and develop as a dynamic economic society, against the background of evidence, such as the Arab Human Development Reports, that the pace of development had been disappointingly slow.  The implications for the region if this continued were painted as stark, with consequences for its capacity to engage with the wider world in a constructive manner.

The conference tended towards pessimism.  The economic area offered the most likely prospect of evolution, under both internal and external factors, towards wider freedom of choice and greater efficiency.  But the political, social and cultural constraints also needed careful assessment.  We concluded that they remained considerable.  The conference was clear throughout that the main drivers of change had to come from the peoples of the Middle East themselves.  But we attempted some guidelines for assistance from outside, which are summarised at the end of this Note. 

Economic factors

We decided early on that it would be wrong to treat the region as a homogenous whole.  Iran, Turkey and Israel, with which some participants had close familiarity, possessed their own separate characteristics.  Even the Arab countries, which were our main target of study, differed markedly.  But some common themes emerged.  Oil brought an obvious advantage to some economies, with revenues generating rapid economic and social development, albeit of a rather narrow kind.  The rising price of oil was considered more of a curse, because it led to less careful management of the rest of the economy, stifled diversification, centralised power and patronage and fuelled corruption.  The oil sector, moreover, provided few jobs in countries woefully short of attractive employment for the burgeoning numbers of young people.  In many places only a minority of well-connected family businesses tended to thrive – important in themselves as suppliers of jobs, capital and talent, but on too small a scale to satisfy societies demand of these commodities.  It was claimed that, to maintain a steady level of growth, the region would need to create a hundred million new jobs by 2025.

The economic working group looked in particular at the strength of penetration of new technology and concluded that it was far too low, in terms both of research and development and of internet connectivity.  Cellphones and television were leaving a greater social and political mark.  Poor levels of investment and standards of education were felt to be the main reasons, with governments remaining reluctant to promote change if that meant greater freedom of information and loss of control.  Smaller Arab States, as in the Gulf, were beginning to come to terms with these deficiencies;  and business practice and business education were showing noticeable improvement in parts of the region.  But we thought that it would take a lot more to overcome other fundamental economic weaknesses, including under-developed agricultural and manufacturing sectors, shortage of water, poor standards of measurement and statistics, bloated bureaucracies and uncertain legal frameworks.   

Social and cultural factors

The conference dug deeper for reasons why the Middle East might be falling behind, for instance, Asia and Latin America in the speed of economic and social development.  We shared a high degree of concern about the condition of education, especially higher education, which was failing to keep pace with accelerating population growth and to offer the necessary preparation for modern life.  Where educational systems showed quality, as often in engineering and medicine, the best graduates often went on to study and then to work overseas. 

We entered with some apprehension the sensitive territory of religion, with impressive expertise but no Islamists at the table.  A wide ranging debate brought out the long history of discussion about Islam’s effect on modernisation and revealed some opposing views.  We accepted the reality that secularisation could not become a policy:  Islam played too central a role in the region.  Some participants believed that moderate Islamists ought to be accommodated within the mainstream of political parties;  though others questioned the advantages of this.  We detected both negative and positive trends in the development of womens’ rights.  We discussed the militant and also the quietist effects of simple, strong religious ideologies such as Wahhabism.  The prevailing view emerged, if with murky edges, that religion, undoubtedly a very significant factor in the makeup of the region, did not sit easily with democratisation and the promotion of individual rights and freedoms.  But we agreed that this had to be accepted as a fact of life.  The history, culture and sovereign independence of the peoples of the Middle East had to be respected. 


This brought us to the area which bridges all the others:  politics.  The conference was concerned that democracy for the Middle East had become a byword for reform and change, but what form of democracy was meant was poorly defined.  We were more comfortable with the term “democratisation”.  What we felt was required was a system where there was an absence of fear of poor treatment from the state or any group within it, and where political, economic and religious disagreement was permitted and minority rights protected.  Local institutions, and especially those of civil society, needed to be improved;  and formal institutions needed to be given genuine power.  An independent justice system was crucial to act as a fair arbiter between state and society. 

It was difficult to record many places where these requirements were being met.  Power in the Arab world was too often being used to maintain authority.  The other duty of government, to provide services – security, identity, belief, as well as the needs of daily life – was not being successfully enough performed.  The egotism of autocratic rule, combined with the dwindling of the economic, moral and persuasive capabilities of regimes, had pushed them increasingly towards a focus on authority rather than service provision.  That tradition required obedience to the state from its subjects made the task of governments easier.  But it also rendered more problematic the emergence of conditions for a more dynamic economic and social life.  Moreover, the fact that Islam requires obedience to God, not temporal power, made it hard to talk about “freedom” as an achievable goal.  Some felt that this point was overlooked by those who spoke casually about the desirability of freedom and democracy.

The conference came to the conclusion that the region needed more time.  Democratisation and reform would have to take place in stages if it was to happen peacefully and on the basis of internal consensus.  But regimes might not have the luxury of time, given the pressures they were facing.  They would be wise to respond steadily to the pressures for change, as some governments were doing, and to learn from models that had worked elsewhere.  In this sense, we thought that the Middle East was not impervious to the pressures for change.  It was simply that regimes had been very resilient in using a variety of informal survival mechanisms, and that the status quo had suited other external actors.  For change to come without instability, governments would need to realise that these mechanisms would not work for ever.  Change could then be driven by self-interest and the survival instincts of increasingly discredited regimes facing demands for change at a popular level.  If governments did not respond, the vacuum might be filled by non-state actors, often linked to opposition forces and sometimes Islamist.  Providing better education and dealing with unemployment were part of the requirement.  So were governments’ respect for the rule of law and a reorganisation of the system of largesse in order to reduce corruption.  All of this was felt to be a tall order. 

If the West had a contributing role to play to a process of peaceful reform and democratisation, it would need to do so in a positive and constructive way.  Even if the vulnerability of regimes suggested some leverage, realism and respect needed to be the guiding ethos.  Incentives for change needed to be devised, with the stick resting in the implications of the Arab Human Development Reports themselves rather than in the hand of outside intervention.  Conditionality had sometimes worked in the past, but the key would be to understand the perceptions of the regimes and groups that were the target of reform, rather than relying on Western notions and objectives.  One of the working groups came up with the following practical suggestions for policy makers, some of them obvious but not all of them always applied:

  • Outsiders had to be sensitive to the region’s culture and history;
  • Reform needed to be encouraged rather than imposed;
  • The variety of the Islamic world should be appreciated, including the variety of political forces within it;
  • It was essential to establish dialogue rather than mutual blame and demonisation;
  • Education was vitally important.  Higher education institutions in the West should engage in practical cooperation with their counterparts in the Middle East.  Security considerations should not prevent Middle East students from attending Western universities;
  • People to people engagement – “grass roots to grass roots” diplomacy – was likely in the long term to be more effective than state to state exchanges. 

Finally, it should be recorded that we did not entirely ignore the larger beasts in the jungle of our subject.  While the effect of the Iraq conflict was largely negative, because the use of force to engender change was so blatant, the evolution of events there was felt to offer some indications of how democratisation might go in the region more widely:  the majority of people wanted to be consulted, but feared from within their ethnic or sectoral identity that the results of a democratic election would be an undemocratic government.  We also discussed whether more active American efforts to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict would contribute to the process of encouraging reform.  Some argued that if Washington was seen to take a genuine honest-broker role in the conflict and put pressure on Israel, then the credibility of its reform agenda at a popular level in the Arab work would be enhanced.  Others argued that the Israel-Palestine dispute was used by Arab regimes to deflect attention and debate from local issues and was too often used as an excuse not to reform.  Perhaps both these indications have some validity.  What we were agreed upon was that continued failure to provide a just settlement for both Palestine and Israel would poison the chances of successful reform.  Without better results in both Iraq and the Middle East Peace Process, some minority groups would continue to thrive on violence;  and where this resulted in wider terrorism, nurtured by both ideological and political perceptions, it would be extremely hard to eradicate.

Ditchley is grateful to our excellent chairman, Mark Malloch Brown, and to an impressive team of presenters, group chairmen, rapporteurs and participants for their input on a crucial subject;  and not least to our Muslim colleagues for joining us on the eve of ‘Id al Fitr.  This was a subject to which Ditchley will have to return.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  Mr Mark Malloch Brown

The Administrator, United Nations Development Programme


Mr David Malone

Assistant Deputy Minister, Africa and Middle East, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Ottawa (2004-).  Formerly:  President, International Peace Academy, New York (1998-2004).

Professor Saeed Rahnema

Professor and Political Science Co-ordinator, Atkinson Faculty, York University.  Formerly:  Associate Professor, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, Canada.

Professor John Sigler

Department of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa.  Formerly:  Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament (1983-89).

Mr William I Turner

Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, Exsultate Inc.



Mr Denis Bauchard

Senior Fellow, Institut Francais des Relations Internationales (2004-).  Formerly:  President, Institut du Monde Arabe (2002-04);  Ambassador to Canada (1998-2001).

Ms Brigitte Curmi

Special Adviser to the Director, Afrique du Nord – Moyen/Orient.

Ms Anne Le More

Research Graduate, Nuffield College, Oxford.  Formerly:  Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (2003-2004 and 2001-2002).



Mr Majid Jafar

Director, Crescent Petroleum International, Sharjah, UAE.



Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi

Leone Ginzburg Senior Research Fellow in Israel Studies, St Antony’s College Middle East Centre and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Oxford University (1998-)



HE Yoshiji Nogami

Ambassador of Japan to the Court of St James.  Formerly:  Senior Visiting Fellow, Middle East Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London.



Professor Yousef Sawani

Professor, Department of Political Science, Fateh University, Tripoli.



Mr Teymour AlirezaPresident and Vice Chairman, Alireza Group;  Chairman, National Pipe Company, Director, World Wild Life Fund;  None-Executive Director, Shell.




Ms Ferai Tinc



Mr Raad Alkadiri

PFC Energy Consultants (Washington). Formerly:  Assistant Private Secretary to UK Special Representative, Baghdad (2003-2004).


Mr Mark Allen CMG

Special Adviser, BP plc.  Formerly:  HM Diplomatic Service, postings including Abu Dhabi and Cairo.


Mr Michael Binyon OBE
Diplomatic Editor, The Times (1991-).  Formerly:  Foreign correspondent, Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels.

Mr Peter David

Foreign Editor, The Economist (2002-)

Professor Michael Doran

Assistant Professor, Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University.

Mr Alexander Evans

Special Adviser to the Secretary of State, Department for International Development.

Mr Peter Gooderham

Director, Middle East and North Africa, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, HM Diplomatic Service, previous postings in Brussels, Riyadh, Washington, New York.

Mr Nik Gowing

Main presenter/anchor, international TV news service, BBC World (1996-);  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Mr Roger Hardy

Middle East and Islamic Affairs Analyst, BBC World Service.

Mr Simon Henderson

Associate, Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Dr Rosemary Hollis

Head, Middle East Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Dr Farhan Nizami

Director, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford;  The Prince of Wales Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Mr Greg Shapland

Middle East and North Africa Research Group, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Rt Hon Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Minister of State for International Trade and Investment, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  Formerly:  Minister of State for Defence Procurement.

Mr Gerry Wade

Partner, Probus BNW (1991-);  Trustee, Community Development Foundation and Ashoka (UK);  Editorial board member, ‘Community Affairs Briefing’;  Member of Council, Hansard Society.

Lord Wright of Richmond GCMG

Life Peer (Cross Benches) (1994-).  Formerly:  Chairman, Royal Institute of International Affairs;  Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1986-91);  Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1984-86), to Syria (1979-81);  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.


Mr Richard Aborn
Managing Director, Constantine and Aborn Advisory Services (2003-).

Dr Steven Cook
Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations.  Formerly:  Instructor, University of Pennsylvania;  Brookings Research Fellow (2001-2002).

Mr Francis Finlay

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Clay Finlay Inc (1982);  Governor London Business School.  Member, International Advisory Board of EURONEXT;  Member of the Board, Dubai International Financial Centre;  a Director, American Ditchley Foundation;  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.


Dr Kemal Guruz

Board member of the Moshe Dayan Centre of Tel Aviv University;  Representative Turkey on the European Rector’s Conference.

Dr Bernard Haykel

Assistant Professor, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, New York University.

Dr James Ketterer

Director, Center for International Development, State University of New York.  Formerly:  Policy Analyst for the Near East/South Asia, National Security Council, Washington DC.

The Honorable Elliott Levitas

Kilpatrick Stockton LLP.  Formerly:  Member, Government Operations Committee and Chairman, Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, US House of Representatives.

Mr Kirk Spahn

President, The Institute for Civic Leadership, School of International Affairs, Columbia University.