Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday bluntly challenged Middle Eastern leaders to open their political systems and economies, warning that “the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”
Clinton, addressing an international meeting in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, said the region’s states need to share more power with civic and volunteer groups to overcome the problems of exploding populations, stagnant economies and declining natural resources.
Citing unemployment rates of 20% and higher among the young, she said “people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order” and are demanding reforms. She said too few Middle Eastern governments have long-term plans to tackle the threats.
She bore down on the corruption, warning that ordinary citizens in many nations were aware, as they were not decades ago, that most of many countries’ wealth is funneled to a tiny elite, rather than to the many.
“Corruption is a cancer and eats away,” Clinton said.
But, she said, “you can make a lot of money in a non-corrupt system if you are working hard, and that’s what should be encouraged.”
She said too many countries are resisting the growth of civil and voluntary groups, viewing civil society “as a threat or an enemy of the state instead of a partner.”
Clinton and regional leaders were meeting at the so-called Forum for the Future, which was launched in 2004 by the G-8 group of industrial nations as a way to promote growth of nongovernmental civil groups.
Several Middle Eastern leaders argued at the forum that they were making strides to promote such groups but said such change can be disruptive in traditional and religious societies.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa said that in the past 11 years his country had “seen a lot of change” in its political system. He said the only downside was “how society is taking change. ... There have been hiccups.”
Some private groups believe the change has been incremental and contend that the forum has generated little but talk.
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies issued a statement saying that since the forum was launched, political and economic freedoms in the region have deteriorated and the organization “has become more of a debate club.”
Clinton’s comments reflected the longstanding views of U.S. administrations, but they were unusually blunt in tone and striking coming from an administration that has been accused of not doing enough to promote democracy and human rights.
The moderator of the meeting asked Clinton why regional governments should listen to American advice about reform when the Obama administration has been unable to deliver its ally Israel on peace with the Palestinians.
Clinton said other countries shouldn’t expect Israel, or other countries, to heed U.S. wishes.
“I wish there were a way we could tell a lot of counties what they should do,” she said.