While President Bush has promoted the "big bang" approach (overthrow of the Hussein dictatorship and its replacement by a democracy) to reform in the Arab world, his efforts have been derided by such advocates of "realism" as John Kerry. The realists prefer the previous diplomatic approach, which encouraged and strengthened Arab dictatorships. But by ensuring continued denial of Arab human rights, the realists would risk continuing instability in the region and the wider world .
However, a third way exists and has begun to flourish. Democratic ferment is brewing on the periphery of the Arab world, in smaller states. This trend should be encouraged. Diffusion of these ideals to the wider Arab world will steadily erode the structures of Arab despotism. Percolation of these practices and philosophies can be considered the "trickle up" strategy of reform.
President Bush is one of the few world leaders with the vision that Arab despotism can be reformed. However, given the constraints he faces (diplomatic, political, financial, the media and foreign opinion) the goal of making Iraq a role model for the region may be an example of his reach exceeding his grasp. Such a revolution may be beyond the capacities of the Arab world to digest. Fareed Zakaria has made a similar point in his book, The Future of Freedom, in which he argues for a slower approach in bringing democracy to dictatorships. Traditionally, advocates of reform for the Arab world have concentrated their attentions on Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, because these were seen as either leaders of the Arab world or, in the case of Iraq, nations that may be ripe for such a revolution. These efforts have met with very limited success.
To understand why the trickle—up strategy is more promising than either the big bang or the realist approaches, we need to look at the lessons of history, specifically, the history of change and innovation in large systems.
History has shown that often change is pioneered by minorities within communities (or empires), and by small groups or nations on the peripheries of empires (for example, the Roman Empire). Minorities are often precluded from fully participating in traditional industries or fields of endeavors, and they have little to lose, so they can take the risky step of trying new ideas. A similar process exists in the business world —— new entrants are forced to innovate new products or practices. Operating under the radar screen they are not beholden to the old ways and often become successful enough to carry on a revolution in the business world.
History teaches us that empires are often changed by forces generated on their boundaries or periphery. Christianity, which changed Rome (and the world), is a classic example of a movement which began in the remote and unimportant outskirts. These are the landscapes where civilizations touch. Samuel Huntington presciently prophesized that a 'clash of civilizations' can occur in these areas. Results are not pre—ordained, though. These areas (often port cities) may have to rely on trade, and become popular places for outsiders to visit on their ways to other parts of the region. The periphery is by definition distant from the central sources of power and authority, which might restrict freedom and openness. Thus they have the potential to become fertile areas for the exchange of ideas, customs, and insights. Ports, such as New York, Hong Kong, San Francisco, or Rotterdam in the era of Erasmus, have a history of producing innovative thought. These entrepots can become marketplaces of ideas, as much as they are for goods and services. Free from restrictions, new social and cultural bonds form; networks develop which become the conduits of change.
We can see evidence of the relevance of this paradigm emerging in the Arab world. The smaller Gulf nations —— Dubai, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Kuwait, Sharjah and other small Emirates —— have become leaders in modernizing their societies, relative to the troika of Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia on which so much effort has been focused. Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the two holiest sites of Islam (Mecca and Medina) and also the home of Wahhabism, and therefore has been very resistant to change. Egypt, because of its huge population, historical integrity as a state, and its frontline status next to Israel, would also be reluctant to possible tarnish its "Arab" nationalist status by Westernizing too much.
However, the smaller nations and city states are more likely to modernize. They can become conduits of change into the larger states. Moreover, national boundaries, mostly imposed by outsiders drawing lines on maps, can be somewhat spongy and permeable. A brief review of changes occurring in key sectors of society in these periphery states will show their progress and their promise.
In Kuwait and Qatar, women now make up fully 70% of the student bodies, a level that far surpasses that of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq. Sharjah and Dubai have both opened up 'American' universities and nearby Qatar has just set up a branch of Cornell Medical School. Dubai has set up free—trade zones, including an Internet City that offers training in Internet usage (a 'Knowledge Village' is planned which may become a campus of one or more foreign universities). In Kuwait, schoolbooks are being purged of anti—Semitic and anti—Western 'lessons'.
As schooling options expand for women, previously closed areas of society are opening for them. Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain have put in place quasi—democratic reforms. Efforts are progressing in Kuwait that would grant women the right to vote and hold office. In 2003, Qatar celebrated the appointment of the first female Cabinet minister in its history. Women can now be found in Dubai smoking water pipes in previously exclusively male cafes. In Bahrain, women can even serve as army officers!
Qatar is the home of Al—Jazeera that, despite its many flaws, is the first Arab media outlet free of government control. While not a Gulf nation, Lebanon shares many of the characteristics of these nations (trade and outward oriented, on the periphery of the Arab world) and is the home of many programs that feature scantily—clad women. Even Syrian domination has not stifled the Lebanese tradition of cultural openness to the West. These Lebanese programs are broadcast throughout the Arab world.
Capitalism has long been associated with the rise of democracy. The smaller Gulf nations have become hotbeds of capitalism. Dubai has become a center of trade, financial services and tourism —— complete with the aforementioned free—trade zones. Jordan has an enterprise zone that can export tariff—free goods to America (a special program), and it has become a booming hub of entrepreneurs, employing thousands of people. Stock markets have arisen within the Gulf zone and can serve as incubators of new business.
Since Israel is considered anathema in much of the Arab world it is illuminating that some of the smaller Gulf nations have ties with that nation. Qatar has an Israeli trade office that is a de facto diplomatic outpost and Abu Dhabi has recently expressed an interest in having a similar arrangement. Dubai has approached Israel with a proposal to develop joint high—tech ventures and has expressed a desire to emulate Israel's high—tech model of growth. In late May, Qatar opened a conference on Christian—Muslim relations with an official call to broaden the forum to include Judaism. Qatar also ignored criticism in the Arab world when it extended an invitation to Israel to attend a 2001 World Trade Organization conference in its nation[EL1]. Also, while Saudi Arabia has refused to permit American military forces to be stationed there, Qatar and Kuwait have welcomed them.
As these smaller nation—states lead reform in the Arab world, they will become role models for other nations in the region. They can attract talented people from other nations and force those nations to adapt to competitive pressures. We must encourage this development and a range of options is available to us. But however promising these developments may be, as long as the Israel—Palestinian conflict continues to simmer, progress toward engagement with Israel will not be dramatically visible.
Trickling further up
Change via the trickle—up strategy is rarely dramatic, compared to the big bang approach. But the cumulative effect of small steps loosening the hold of authoritarian governments and rigid traditions can be powerful. Freedom and self—generating prosperity do have their attractions to Arabs as much as to anyone else. Satellite broadcasting has smashed the ability of governments to control the information channels available within their borders, vastly increasing the potential for the notion of change—as—possibility to insinuate itself within the consciousness of citizens of repressive authoritarian states.
The process by which the Eastern bloc nations spun out of control of the Soviet Communist empire has relevance to the Arab world. Ambassador Mark Palmer served in Hungary and was the State Department's top Kremlinologist during the years of its decline and fall. He was also an actor in the process (which began in smaller nations on the periphery of the Communist empire and worked its way to the core) and has written an insightful book, Breaking the Axis of Evil, which mentions the variety of methods used to destroy despotism from within. Among these are the funding of libraries, alternative media, and watchdog and human rights groups. Most importantly, he advocates listening to the locals and being adept enough to adapt to their needs and desires. Since anything with an American image to it seems suspect in the Arab world, it is important to encourage efforts that have an Arab provenance and face.
A tipping point can be reached in which a variety of reform efforts become self—supporting and mutually reinforcing. The world of Arab despotism can follow Communism into the dustbin of history.