Wim Kok on the Arab Spring: “The realization of social and economic expectations, crucial for a sustainable transition”

The Global Economic Symposium is a is a groundbreaking initiative in global problem-solving. It is organized by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (one of the world’s top think-tanks), in collaboration with the German National Library of Economics (ZBW) and other prominent
international research institutes. Presidente of the Club de Madrid and former Prime Minister of The Netherlands, WIm Kok, was asked to present the Club de Madrid vision and proposals on “The Future of the Arab World” in an “op ed” format and on the basis of that article a discussion was held on the Forum. This is the full text


The Future of the Arab World

At its start the Arab Spring has been watched with excitement and hope. The people, in particular the younger generations, ensured their voices were heard and became the driving force for change, calling for freedom and justice, and for better social and economic perspectives. This spring has inspired a new wave of aspirations of an engaged citizenship. However, hope and optimism should not blind us to the enormous challenges on this path towards freedom, stability and prosperity. There are several possible scenarios in the Arab world, and we have no guarantee that the likeliest one is the most desirable.

In response to widespread regional demands between 2007 and 2009, the Club de Madrid, a global organization composed of over 90 former heads of state and government, engaged in a project entitled “Freedom of Association in North Africa and the Middle East”. This project was implemented in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia and stressed the need for such demands to be met peacefully and without delay. The first movements for reform witnessed during the so called “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia and Egypt. It was precisely in these countries that the Members of the Club de Madrid had found strong resistance to change on the part of their leaders. The Club de Madrid has remained engaged in the MENA region through a number of activities and projects.

While the international community assumed that firm steps towards real political transition had taken root in some countries, we see now that the process is not as straightforward as some may have thought. The recent ousting of President Morsi by the military in Egypt is a case in point. Currently, the political situation in Egypt is very fragile and the same is true for Tunisia after the recent political murder. In other countries such as Bahrain or Yemen progress has been suppressed or violently repressed. The dramatic humanitarian consequences of the civil war in Syria are indescribable and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The relationship between religion and politics is still unresolved, while having a democratically elected government does not equate with liberal democracy. The respect for individual rights and beliefs must be at the core of any democratic transition and consolidation process.

Moreover, across the region, the economic situation is unstable and there is a tangible risk that this will impede and distort both national and international hopes for a freer, more stable and prosperous transition. The realization of social and economic expectations—including poverty eradication and job creation—is a crucial condition or even a prerequisite for a smooth and sustainable political transition process. Back in the 1980’s, during what was called the “lost decade” in Latin America, the question How much poverty can a democracy withstand?, created much anxiety. Today, the same question is palpable in the Arab region, particularly regarding the high unemployment among an increasingly educated youth that lacks opportunities and whose expectations of a brighter future have not been met. The timid structural and institutional reforms implemented have not cured a very difficult economic situation: falling income from tourism and exports, reduced levels of investment and remittances, corruption and capital flight, tougher conditions for borrowing, higher prices for food and energy, etc.

Although long-term trends seem more promising from a regional point of view – with oil and gas exporters being able to assist in achieving a regional financial balance, especially if movements towards regional integration were to spread to the whole area – short-term economic management in “tourism-dependent” countries is complicated. In these countries, it is essential to reach internal agreements involving commitments and sacrifices on the part of all social and economic agents, through incomes policies, while national dialogue tables must be set up to reach consensus on the interplay between majority rule, individual rights and the public role of religion. This is a precondition for a successful establishment of a liberal order in the Arab world.

These measures should also be supported by non-regional countries because the region is of crucial importance for the international community as a whole. This regional and international support should be part of a coherent strategy covering both political aspects (the creation of a space for freedom, the rule of law and respect for human rights and private beliefs) and economic and social aspects (inclusive societies which can create decent jobs in a sustainable way).

The Club de Madrid considers that current efforts can be strengthened with a number of elements:

 • Broader involvement of all interested parties, open to all the Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East and to all countries and relevant agents, inside or outside the region, that share the objective of seeing an area of freedom, prosperity and stability firmly established in the MENA region.

Greater coordination among international and regional financial institutions active in the region.

Support for political development, which should focus on developing a liberal order respectful of individual rights and freedoms, including religious beliefs, as a precondition for a successful democratic transition. The Club de Madrid is willing to provide specific aid in the setting up of National Dialogue Tables where civil society organizations and political parties could have a frank conversation on the unresolved relationship between politics and religion in public life. This support for political transition should be backed by an ambitious international “Marshall Plan” to tackle aggressively the unemployment challenge, while supporting efforts to diversify the economies, fight against corruption and correct economic mismanagement.

Support to regional integration. In parallel to the political awakening of countries throughout the region, we propose giving momentum to the proposals for an Arab regional integration process, which will foster trade and economic growth through the free movement of goods, capitals and workers.

Resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This unresolved conflict continues to ignite the whole region with political and social tensions. It is imperative to move closer to a resolution of this issue in the medium-term.

 The Club de Madrid believes that there are no historical inevitabilities or fatalistic destinies. There are many possible futures. We are ready to join forces with like-minded partners, including governments, in order to contribute to bringing about a scenario characterized by stability, freedom and prosperity in the Arab World.

Wim Kok

President of the Club de Madrid