INTERVIEW HRH Prince El-Hassan bin Talal of Jordan: We need homegrown solutions to homegrown problems,
‘From nationalism to socialism, from neo conservatism to communism, our recent political history has been marked by the fragmented experimentation of imported hybrid ideologies. But what has been happening recently was not imported; the uprisings have been incubated and developed within the region for over half a century.’ Prince El-Hassan bin Talal on the Arab Spring Former crown prince of Jordan, HRH Prince El-Hassan bin Talal has initiated, founded and is actively involved in a number of Jordanian and international institutes and committees, with a particular focusing on science, youth issues and inter-faith studies. These include the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) Forum, a nongovernmental, non-partisan civil society initiative established in 2009. The WANA Forum brings together regional stakeholders from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to address social, environmental and economic challenges in the area. HRH spoke to Turkish Review Editor-in-Chief Kerim Balcı about his vision and hopes for the region.
Kerim Balcı: The geographic area you call WANA overlaps the so-called Greater Middle East map. Is there a relation between the two, or is WANA a kind of regional reaction to US projects to reshape the region?
Prince El-Hassan bin Talal: Geographically, historically and culturally there is a connection between WANA and the Greater Middle East as both, broadly speaking, encompass the region spanning Mauritania to Pakistan, Turkey to Yemen.
The difference between these two terms lies in ori- gin and implication. The term Greater Middle East was introduced by the [US President George W.] Bush administration in preparation for the G8 summit of 2004, as part of a proposal for a sweeping change in the way the West deals with the Middle East. The point of reference for such a term is thus US foreign policy; before that it was European foreign policy.
However, it would be unfair and inaccurate to describe WANA as simply a regional reaction. I would argue that WANA is not a reaction but a nongovernmental initiative committed to improving regional cooperation and dialogue. If we were in East Asia, for instance, should we not call it “Middle West”? Indeed, if you were to examine the Chinese Foreign Ministry, you would note that in place of a Middle East Department there exists a WANA Department.
In addition to the geographical inaccuracies of the term Middle East, the Middle East (in its traditional sense) is a term that locates this region in relation to the geostrategic interests of the West. It is a definition by and for an external actor.
I would argue that the people in this region, perhaps now more than ever, are becoming the authors of their own identities. This can and indeed should entail an identity defined not by others, but by the people of
the region. It is for this reason that I prefer the term West Asia and not Middle East.
KB: What are the aims of WANA? Are you able to lead and provoke a new intellectual discussion in this zone?
HRH: I would imagine, although not presume, that the aims of WANA are those of any other region: the establishment and fair balance of freedom and security for all. The protests and insurrectionary uprisings witnessed across the region are, I believe, testament to that fact. It is a movement for human dignity, access, opportunity, empowerment and equity. I would argue that it is the universality of these values that has so dramatically affected the tipping point of nation-states.
This region has not been built by the voice of one individual, but by the collective endeavors of many. We require a process that recognizes the people of this region as the true stakeholders of the future, a process that provides the opportunity for all to participate freely in governance and society. And WANA believes in finding homegrown solutions to homegrown problems.
It is for this reason that I established the WANA Forum in 2009, as an initiative dedicated to promoting regional dialogue and intellectual discussion, with the aim of bringing people from all sectors and societies in WANA together. The WANA Forum provides a platform upon which we, as a region, can share our ideas, our beliefs, our culture and our creeds so that we might build a richer regional narrative, and help make a better future for our children.
THE MAJORITY WANTS APPROXIMATELY THE SAME THING WHEREVER YOU LOOK: A SENSE OF DIGNITY, CONTROL OVER THEIR OWN DESTINIES, AND ACCESS TO OPPORTUNITY
KB: How do you analyze the wave of popular uprisings in the Arab world? Is this only political and economic, or are there international forces behind the uprisings?
HRH: From nationalism to socialism, from neo conservatism to communism, our recent political history has been marked by the fragmented experimentation of imported hybrid ideologies. But what has been happening recently was not imported; the uprisings have been incubated and developed within the region for over half a century. They have risen largely from the bottom up, [carried] by a once-silenced and increasingly interconnected majority.
It may all end unevenly. Beyond a doubt, however, is the extent to which an associative network of subliminal images presenting this region as bitter and bigoted has been shattered. Here, people are paying the ultimate price for the right to have rights.
Generating ideas is easier said than done. By limiting free speech and forcing millions of young people to stay at home without jobs, the only public space left for many people happens to be a virtual one. Arab governments switched their people off, so their people congregated online.
Whatever the new wave’s limitations, its borderless online conversations are offsetting the region’s political, religious, social, and cultural balkanization. The people of WANA are talking among themselves, even if their governments remain remote. That is new. Although these uprisings are homegrown, international forces seem now to have climbed on bandwagon.
KB: What do you suggest to the established leaderships of the countries in this region: to go or to make reforms?
HRH: There is perhaps nothing sadder, more frustrating and debilitating than potential not just abandoned, but actively held down, twisted, repacked and transformed into the language of either hatred or futility.
It wasn’t until an unassuming vegetable seller called Mohammed Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and struck a match in Tunisia that the Arab imagination awoke to a painful epiphany -- that we were doing this to ourselves.
“What wealth we have,” a Druze emir of Mount Lebanon once told a foreign visitor in the mid-19th century, “we spend on injuring one another.”
A regional lack of good governance -- a complete amnesia toward the classical and Islamic concept of the “citizen” -- in addition to the overbearing weight of history, compounded by war, all combined to create a vacuum of hope and a situation in which individuals no longer seemed to matter.
Modernization will not come by itself. What we
need is strategic reform. In November 2009 the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation discovered that since 1980 virtually all new job creation in the US occurred in firms less than five years old. That is why in addition to finding our young people jobs we should be providing the tools for them to create their own. Whatever happens, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled has changed for the better. And permanently.
The future of WANA remains one of potential and opportunity. The task of the next 10 years should be to develop the political, digital, institutional and economic tools to create a convivial community in this region, and to find better ways of harnessing its creativity, its innovation, and in particular its youth. With conviviality of purpose and generosity of intellect, there is no reason our future should not become one of accomplishment instead of one of loss.
INSTEAD OF CONSTRUCTING A THREAD OF LOGIC TO EVENTS, WE SHOULD ACKNOWLEDGE OUR OWN POWERLESSNESS AND FOCUS ON THOSE VARIABLES THAT PERHAPS WE CAN INFLUENCE: POVERTY, DEMOGRAPHICS, WATER AND ENERGY
KB: So you are optimistic about the future of the region?
HRH: I believe that the outcome of this sort of tectonic realignment is not just unpredictable but unknowable. Instead of constructing easily digestible narratives that create the illusion of predictability and control -- a thread of logic to events -- we, and especially the West, should acknowledge our own powerlessness and focus on those variables that perhaps we can influence: poverty, demographics, water and energy.
In the 1980s, theocratic and autocratic politics moved in when oil prices fell and economic growth faltered. Today we host the world’s highest earners and its lowest. People are not just calling out for selfdetermination, but for the right to “pursue happiness” and opportunity. This has always been the case; the only difference is that a new generation has realized that no-one -- certainly not Washington -- was ready to achieve this for them.
What we’ve been seeing recently, and perhaps what we mean when we talk of the “Arab Street,” is an emphasis on day-to-day issues -- the price of fuel, corruption, education -- all of which impede the right of millions of people in this region to be happy, lead a better life, and provide for the next generation.
Egypt’s youth may have helped topple their leader, but they still can’t find jobs, and we still regard them […] as a problem to be solved. I would be fasci- nated to learn just what Europe’s demography looked like during the Age of Enlightenment or America’s during the post-war years.
We desperately need to work together as a region on water and energy security, but just as importantly we need to harness, recognize and respect our human energy, especially in countries such as Jordan. Whether republics or kingdoms, the region will now increasingly be run by its peoples and their wishes.
KB: I want to speak about the cultural, intellectual and artistic consequences of the Arab Spring. Is there a possibility that the change will induce an Arab-Muslim renaissance?
HRH: The veils of hypocrisy, ignorance and stagnation have shrouded WANA for far too long. No one predicted the ongoing turf war which has pitted sultanic ambitions and the modern security apparatus against the Arab Street. The majority wants approximately the same thing wherever you look: a sense of dignity, control over their own destinies, and access to opportunity.
With this in mind, Richard Florida, the urban studies theorist who famously coined the phrase “the creative class,” recently published some findings in regard to the region which I hope will not go unnoticed.
Broadly speaking, Florida contends that a creative socioeconomic class has been the key driving force of economic development in all post-industrial cities, in particular in the US. Writing in The Atlantic he observes that the highest percentages of “creative class” workers are found in advanced economies -- the Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, Scandinavia, Belgium, Germany the UK and Canada.
But he also found that Egypt’s creative class comprises roughly one-third (33.1 percent) of its workforce, on a par with the US (34.8 percent). To put this statistic in context: In 2007 the World Intellectual Property Organization estimated that 11 percent of the US’s GDP was derived from creative industries.
Now many countries in WANA do not collect or report data on their workforce categories, but they do collect data on the percentage of young adults engaged in tertiary education, which in turn possesses a very large statistical correlation with the size of the creative class workforce.
Florida found that several countries in the region -including Libya -- ranked highly on this index and that tertiary enrolment figures in the West Bank (38 percent) and Jordan (35 percent) were higher than they are in Hong Kong (34 percent). It is not an “ArabMuslim” renaissance. It is a renaissance of societies.
Countries with high levels of human capital are usually among the richest in the world, but in our region Florida observed that “the standard of living was lower than the creative class and human capital levels would seem to warrant.”
For him this disconnect was a “signal of unrealized economic potential”; a failure to translate “talent, creativity and ambition” into “economic development and well-being.”
A modern feature of economic potential -- and human potential -- is the kind of enlightenment and renaissance we should be working towards in a manner mindful of the past, but not subservient to it.
KB: What about the relations between the Muslim world and the West? Will the Arab Spring, together with the fact that Osama bin Laden has now been eliminated, help reduce tensions between East and West?
HRH: The tensions which exist have not been brought about solely by extremism or bin Laden. Rather, they are the result of two persistent factors: oil and the conflict in Palestine. The surgical departure of the chief antagonist of the “War on Terror” has brought into sharp relief the more than checkered history of the past 10 years. For the most part it has been a traumatic decade for the countries of a region I refer to as WANA.
There seem to be 1,001 interpretations of the changes sweeping across the countries of WANA. One response that is often heard is a note of cautious optimism, captured in US President Barack Obama’s recent speech to the US State Department, when he referred to the “promise of the future.”
But sometimes we also hear the populist smears that have been applied to West Asia for so long that nothing, it seems -- no amount of extraordinary change -- can silence them. After the successful revolts in Cairo and Tunis, the slander abated. Soon, however, the old messages depicting West Asia as extreme, fundamentalist and hostile to democracy again began to insinuate themselves in “the West.”
On the other hand, ordinary men and women in “the West” seem to feel an instinctive sympathy toward their counterparts in WANA, many of whom are paying the ultimate price in fighting for their rights. These sacrifices have convinced many “Westerners” that West Asia is alive and well, and that the region’s people do have an equal claim to the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This flash of perception has caught the world’s policy experts and analysts off guard. That, too, is not surprising, because the situation remains an amorphous mix of hope and destruction.
KB: What lessons the Arabs can take from the Turkish experience with democratization and open market economy?
HRH: I look again at a renewed Turkey, trading as we speak with Iran, using commerce to overcome national boundaries and ethnic tensions in a way that encourages prosperity and largely peace, and possibly playing a salutary role in the violence we perceive every day across the border in Syria.
In working towards a Middle East economic community I thank my Turkish brothers for proposing that we work through the G20; through our regional members, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to make a grand offer of financial help to any country of this region, contingent on their liberalizing trade in goods and services, and making trade and business rules transparent.
Secondly the countries who are interested in taking up the offer should meet to agree what assistance they will need, with a guiding body established to review requirements and progress. The World Trade Organization (WTO) should take advantage of the Arab Spring to energize efforts to absorb its observer members across the Middle East into the trade organization, which has the infrastructure to provide the necessary transnational governance to enforce freer trade.
Thirdly, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, hopefully, will be able to negotiate a free trade agreement designed to supersede the bilateral trading relationships that have confined trade within the region. This would lay the basis for a multilateral free trade zone, governed by WTO rules and governed by all WTO signatories in the region. The best lesson is that one can have a “demo- cratic” Islamic experience (Turkey) and not necessarily the “extremist” Iranian example.
KB: The Turkish prime minister is seen as a hero in the Arab streets, but not because of the successes of Turkey, but because of his harsh criticism of Israel. How long will the Israeli-Palestinian issue continue to define the heroes of the Arab world?
HRH: The heroes of the Arab world are often those perceived to have the most anti-Israeli policies (Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah, Iranian President Ahmadinejad). Solve the Palestinian issue, and this will be solved too.
KB: Is the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations helpful for the Arabs in general, the Palestinians in particular?
HRH: Turkey can still play an important role in facilitating the long hoped-for steps by Israel to restoring historic relationships, which can serve as a catalyst for improved political and economic relations across the region as a whole.
Turkey is well advised to maintain a healthy rela-
tionship with all considered (Arabs and Israelis) or else it will be just another player rather than a potential mediator.
KB: You are also the president of Al-Muntada, the Arab Thought Forum (ATF). This forum deals mainly with Palestinian issues. Do you really think that under conditions of occupation Palestinian intellectuals can prepare their society for a democratic state?
HRH: Of course: Democracy was dreamt up in circumstances of tyranny. Indeed in some ways transformation can be less draining thanw reform; building up is in some ways easier than knocking things down.
The ATF deals with many issues, including of course Palestine. Recently the role of youth, the direction of the Arab uprisings, as well as religious adherence and supranational community building have all been at the core of what the ATF is working on. The idea was not to create an ivory tower, but an institution that could contribute respectfully and sensitively to the ongoing conversations in the region.
There was a time when the destiny of our region was a one-way street sign posted “peace process.” Today that street leads in all sorts of directions.
THE HEROES OF THE ARAB WORLD ARE OFTEN THOSE PERCEIVED TO HAVE THE MOST ANTIISRAELI POLICIES: SOLVE THE PALESTINIAN ISSUE, AND THIS WILL BE SOLVED TOO
KB: How do you see the unrest in Syria? At what point should the international community intervene as they did in Libya?
HRH: What’s happening in Syria is deplorable. But the world is watching.
The problems of WANA cannot be solved from the air, because they begin on the ground. Intervention -humanitarian or otherwise -- is all very well as long as it does not become a Trojan horse for other motives.
What this region needs is a preventive paradigm, not an interventionist one, based on soft and not hard power and able to create an institutional legal, professional, educational and cultural cocoon for those who have fallen not so much between the cracks as into the abyss. Human capacity should be made a little more independent of state capacity. And Syria is another example of selective international involvement. It’s too often not principles but interests…
KB: We know that you have been promoting a supranational economic cooperation body in the region. How realistic is your project?
HRH: If that project does seem unrealistic, then there is all the more reason to worry.
Today WANA’s wealth exists in foreign portfolios abroad. Capital and investment need to be brought back into the WANA region. Our water and energy resources are shared and depleting. They take no account of national boundaries, and yet this natural or geographic interdependence, which does represent a credible threat to global security, has never been addressed on a supranational basis. In the aftermath of two devastating world wars, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman forged the European Coal and Steel Community, to weld a reluctant Europe together through economic cooperation. Can we not do the same by creating a “community for water and energy for the human environment”?
What is stopping us from achieving what the Strategic Foresight Group, in partnership with the WANA Forum, has dubbed Blue Peace?
It would be wonderful if cohesion funds -- modeled on the way the EU invests money to promote development in its poorer members, administered transparently and without sticky fingers -- could be presented by the Arab League to the UN Assembly.
KB: Do you think Turkey should be a part of this supranational body you are promoting, given the fact that all other countries speak Arabic and are dominantly Arab, whereas Turkey is not?
HRH: Do they speak the same language in the 27 EU countries? Language should never be a barrier.
KB: Do you find the cultural, intellectual cooperation between Turkey and the Arab world satisfactory?
HRH: We need to invest in WANA as a region, but that investment should be holistic: intellectual, environmental, cultural and not just economic. Turkey could be instrumental in helping to get this region not just talking but working with itself. WANA for all its blessings remains a dysfunctional family. Few other countries are as well placed as Turkey to stage an intervention.
Prince Hassan Bin Talal
speaks during the opening of the Arab Women and Future Outlook Conference in Amman. (Nov. 5, 2007).