Queen Noor of Jordan

The Challenges Of Peace: A Jordanian Perspective - Oct. 8, 1996

Queen Noor of Jordan
October 08, 1996— Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Thank you, Dean Nye, Faculty and students, distinguished guests, Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Arab students, the Institutes of Politics and of Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East at Harvard's J.F. Kennedy School Of Government, for the invitation.

It is a privilege to be here with you this evening.

President Rudenstein had planned to be here tonight, which I had looked forward to since I feel something of a connection. He was for many years Provost at my alma mater, Princeton, and both of us have since moved on to alternative lifestyles. I know how important the President of Harvard is; I remember hearing how, once, when FDR (I think it was) was visiting here, his staff needed to reach him for some crisis (a situation I'm familiar with) they called the university offices and asked to speak to the President. "I'm sorry, you can't", the secretary replied, "the President is in a meeting with Mr. Roosevelt".

When I think of President Rudenstein, I can't help feeling some hope, in spite of the precarious situation in our region. If a Princeton provost can become president of Harvard, then anything can happen.

Still, we do face some serious challenges. There are times when I think that solving the territorial disputes in the Middle East is almost as challenging as fighting for a parking space in Harvard Square.

I spoke just over a decade ago in this same hall, on the same subject: the vital need for peace in the Middle East. It is striking to think of how much has changed And how much has not. I remember debating whether or not to take questions after my lecture --always a concern for me, in those early years, as my speaking tours, usually planned well in advance, always seemed to coincide with the sudden emergence of a new Middle East crisis. Obviously this is one of the things that has not changed.

I read later that my indecision had been interpreted as waiting for permission to speak from Amman which, no doubt, reflected ironic and well-worn stereotypes which have haunted me most of my married life -- about women and Arab society, politics and royalty.

Of course my role, as an outspoken wife of a Head of State was quite unusual, at that time, thanks to the extraordinary confidence in me shown by my husband and the multitude of international organizations and institutions, who, in spite of the media stereotypes, urged me to play an active role as a bridge of cross-cultural and political understanding.

Those persistent stereotypes and misconceptions about the Middle East had also struck me when, as a Princeton architecture and urban planning graduate, I first went to live and work there in 1975 prompted by my desire to explore my Arab roots and heritage. I evolved quickly from a problem solving planner of man's habitat into an aspiring journalist, desperately concerned about problems with accuracy in reporting on the political and cultural environment of the Arab world. I felt a strong responsibility, almost a moral obligation to try to correct grossly distorted western stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, and especially women, for I could see clearly how media stereotyping could set the emotional and political stage for policies that resulted in chronic misunderstanding and conflict.

The mid-70s appeared to be a moment of hope for many people in the Middle East. Oil-fueled economic expansion was triggering an economic boom which seemed to herald new prosperity for the region. Efforts for Arab-Israeli peace talks were attracting unprecedented global attention, and most people thought that the 1973 war would be the last major Arab-Israeli military clash.

It was a time of rapid change. However, not all that change was progress. Americans and westerners in general saw the region as an important new business market of mega-contracts and enormous consumer potential. From within the region, one could see the distorting impact of large money flows that could not be absorbed by once-modest economies.

My urban planning work in Iran in the mid '70s, exposed me to a sense of growing unrest in the Middle East. I felt the despair of ordinary people marginalised and threatened by growing gaps between rich and poor. The combination of political frustration, social alienation and economic disparity created a volatile landscape, which the west largely overlooked because of its single-minded focus on ensuring access to oil. Moreover, the potential instability was exacerbated by trends towards a western style and pace of development in some countries.

One response to these pressures was the Islamist extremism that proliferated in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and other countries. Western countries tend to view this rise only as a political threat to be confronted and contained. This approach ignores the different factors that fuel Islamism in our region -- above all, the seeming western obliviousness to Arab calls for implementation of international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions on the Middle East, as well as fears of foreign cultural and economic dominance, And popular frustration with non-participatory political systems. One of the Middle East's more regrettable distinctions is that it has the largest number of refugees, and, including Israel, the highest ratio of military spending to gross national product of any region of the world. Every day of my life in Jordan and throughout the Middle East I could see the ravages of decades of warfare, in unmet human needs, in fear, hate and uncertainty as people's daily companions, in the constantly growing new belts of urban poverty, in the politics of extremism sweeping the region, and most importantly, in the plight of Palestinian refugees in their increasingly permanent camps.

Western public opinion was unaware of the human face of this tragedy. Most of the journalists I knew who were covering the region in the mid '70s, during the time I worked there before my marriage, routinely complained of the extreme bias of their editors back in the United States, who consistently distorted any objective balance of their reports by removing all but Israeli perspectives on Middle Eastern history, personalities and events.

The late 1970s and early 1980s would prove to be only another interlude of economic progress between the crises that had regularly staggered the region since the 1940s. For The Arab world, much of the decade was marked by a dizzying roller coaster of recurring hopes and dashed expectations.

Every time the region began to generate real economic momentum, almost inevitably, the progress would be lost In the waste of war, and the economic and emotional ravages of post-war despair.

Almost every American President and leading political figure floated initiatives for Arab-Israeli peace settlements; all ultimately foundered. The Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel were seen by Washington as a great success, but the Arab world received them with stupefied disbelief. They were denounced as a calculated fragmentation of Arab ranks, as a unilateral abandonment of the collective Arab commitment to peace, and as a failure to secure the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and the return of all occupied Arab territories.

The worst of Arab fears were confirmed when the Camp David accords were followed immediately by an intense outburst of new illegal Israeli settlements and the unilateral annexation of Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights. Such Israeli actions in the wake of the Camp David Accords further diminished chances for a just and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. It is impossible to ignore the depressing and ironic parallels to the situation today.

Those underlying problems of the 1970s persisted into the mid-1980s, when I spoke here on the importance of promoting peace as the first step towards broader reforms and progress in the Middle East as a whole. Today, another decade later, conditions in the Middle East and the quality of U.S.-Arab relations have improved in many ways, and yet, both are still plagued by rising tensions and recurring conflicts that mirror the problems of decades past.

Today's revived tensions in the Middle East are particularly troubling, because people's expectations have been raised by the historic breakthroughs of recent years. The 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Conference, the 1993 P.L.O.-Israeli Declaration of Principles (Oslo i), the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli Treaty of Peace, and the 1995 Palestinian-Israeli Interim Agreement on expanded Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Oslo ii) . All signaled new hope for stability and regional cooperation. The United States directly, actively and constructively promoted this peace, and in so doing it earned appreciation and respect from many Arab quarters. At the same time , many countries in our region have begun building on that hope and are opening up and liberalizing their economies and shifting towards more productive, sustainable growth and development.

Tragically, we are still plagued by national confrontation among Arabs and Israelis in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, And still beset by the increasingly explosive issues of occupation of land, expansion of settlements, collective punishments and violence. We are faced also with a growing inflexibility on crucial questions like water rights, refugees, frontiers and, especially, the status of Jerusalem and Israeli redeployment from Hebron, which reflect the apparent tendency of the new administration in Israel to undermine agreements reached between the previous government and the Palestinian National Authority.

Perhaps most dangerous of all, people throughout the Middle East are beginning to question whether those strides that have been made towards peace will in fact ever live up to their heightened expectations.

It may have been tempting for many outside the region to conclude that peace had been achieved in the Middle East, and that only a few isolated problems of Arab and Israeli extremist violence remain to be tackled and resolved. But, I would urge you today, much as I did here a decade ago, to look more deeply into the historical and political realities of the Middle East and the way they shape the attitudes and policies of our people .

Until recently, we, in Jordan, had been firmly convinced that the historic peace process in the Middle East was irreversible; however, the lack of implementation of accords reached on the Palestinian-Israeli track and, to some extent on some of the bilateral agreements between Jordan and Israel and, the alarming deterioration of the situation in the Middle East have clearly highlighted the fragility of the progress so far achieved and shaken our belief that the peace process is irreversible.

In order to build a comprehensive and enduring peace that will allow our region to join other stable and productive regions of the world, we all must recognize our common responsibility to end the on-going vicious and destructive cycle of confrontation. The forces for peace in the Arab world and in Israel alike should be mobilized to exert a more powerful influence to face these challenges.

Our first and most urgent challenge is to complete the Arab-Israeli peace process without delay and within a well-defined time frame. The Egyptian, Palestinian and Jordanian peace accords with Israel are historic openings, But not yet much more than openings, for Arabs and Israelis to interact and to consider the potential of their common future. Five years after the Madrid Conference, we are still talking about revitalizing the process itself . It is increasingly clear that time is a crucial element and that further delays will only benefit the enemies of peace. The quality of peace and the attainment of its full promise depend entirely on the resolution of the Arab Israeli conflict in all its dimensions and among all concerned parties, as stipulated in the letter of invitation to the Madrid Conference and its terms of reference , U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

Our second major challenge, directly linked to the success of the peace process, is to open borders and foster regional economic cooperation throughout the Middle East. Severe regional imbalances in resources such as population, energy, water and arable land aggravate the conflicts that have made sustainable economic growth such an elusive goal. Integrating our human and natural resources would propel the entire Middle East toward long-term, sustainable socio-economic development.

Our third great challenge is to assume our place in the worldwide system of liberalized trade and capital markets, by pursuing outward-looking reform policies and domestic environments friendly to foreign export and investment. We must also be able to link into the new and growing networks for finance, information and communication.

But globalization does not mean simply taking advantage of economic or technological advances. It also means allowing the Middle East once again to play the enlightening role that it played several times before in history. Globalization, at its best, does not promote cultural uniformity, but provides opportunities for cultures to interact, enrich and learn from one another, and to live alongside each other in tolerance, respect and peace.

Our fourth challenge is the reduction of social and economic disparities within individual countries through social packages that address the distributional aspects of development. Most people in the Middle East -- perhaps as much as three-fourths of the population -- have a per capita income of only around one thousand dollars per year. The polarization of societies into a rich minority and a poor majority looms today as another cause of instability and conflict.

Peace and regional integration would promote economic restructuring, joint ventures, new export markets, higher productivity and increased job opportunities, all of which can reduce disparity and increase prosperity further down the road.

Our region's fifth critical challenge is domestic political reform. Participatory decision-making is the most important component of good governance. It can also be an essential guarantor of peace by giving people a personal investment in this peace . Throughout the Middle East, it is crucial to integrate culturally appropriate democratic values into our political structures, drawing upon both the rich variety of Arab and Islamic participatory decision-making traditions and the western democratic experience .

How can we address these challenges ? Like the challenges themselves, the solutions combine international, regional, national and local components.

On the international level, the United States, as the major political and economic power in the world today, has a special responsibility to continue to act not only as a catalyst but as a partner to complete the Middle East peace process. Its active sponsorship of the peace process has already yielded a significant measure of success.

The international community, especially Europe, which has historic responsibilities in the region, must also play a role in maintaining the momentum for peace. We cannot succeed alone . The danger of the peace process collapsing entirely is real. It goes without saying that this would have serious implications not just for our region, But for peace and stability throughout the world.

On the regional level, the regional parties in the Middle East and north Africa, with the help and support of the world business community, were able to lay the foundations for regional economic cooperation at the economic summit in Amman in 1995. To build upon these foundations, comprehensive peace on all tracks -- namely the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese -- must be achieved. This requires all parties to co-operate in good faith, and calls for a renewed commitment by Israel's new leadership to the implementation of all provisions of existing treaties and agreements. A comprehensive peace would facilitate the involvement of the wider circle of Arab countries and lead to a mutually beneficial partnership.

The other challenges must be addressed from within our own societies. For example, we, in Jordan, have embarked on fundamental reforms in the political and economic spheres simultaneously.

In 1988, severance of political ties with the West Bank (which had been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, in effect placing half of our parliamentary seats under foreign control), allowed us the following year to hold the first parliamentary general elections in two decades, to resume our democratic political life and reactivate the provisions of our Constitution. Originally drafted in 1928 and revised in 1952, our Constitution is one of the region's oldest, and guarantees political pluralism, popular participation and accountability.

In the same year that we resumed parliamentary elections, we signed the first of two structural readjustment programs with the I.M.F.. To reduce budget and balance of payment deficits and to alleviate debt burden, and consequently encourage sustainable economic growth. A major feature of the Jordanian economy in the coming years will be a more enhanced role of the private sector through the privatization of state and para-statal institutions.

The legal, administrative and fiscal measures already set in place in Jordan have earned us the recognition of the European Union as the most advanced country in the region in implementing market reforms. Our economic liberalization has already had tremendous positive impact on all our macro-economic indicators.

Obviously, political and economic reforms are crucial in themselves; but it is their integration that will yield the greatest results. In 1985, after almost a decade of work in Jordan, I established an umbrella foundation for my diverse efforts in the fields of education, culture, children's health and welfare, women and socio-economic community development to promote equal opportunity, increased productivity and self-reliance through participatory decision-making at the grassroots level. We have designed and successfully implemented projects that have advanced development thinking in Jordan beyond conventional centralized social welfare practices by integrating social development strategies more closely with national economic priorities, especially through the empowerment of women.

As women become active participants and decision-makers in the social and economic affairs of their communities, they also become genuine economic forces, improving their status and influence, as well as the overall quality of life and stability of their community. The foundations programs seek to reinforce and protect their essential role as the anchor of the family -- one that has enabled our society to remain relatively cohesive and stable.

We have demonstrated that a most effective way to achieve sustainable development, especially in developing societies with limited resources, is by empowering communities to assume ownership and management of their development process, and to promote a more equitable distribution of resources and development benefits.

Strengthened by increased self-reliance and confidence in themselves, local communities are enjoying a measurable improvement in quality of life, productivity and stability. They will be more effective and successful in establishing partnerships on a regional basis in the future, and more able to participate in the peace-building process in the era of peace.

It may be interesting to note that these projects are considered national and regional development models by United Nations and other international agencies, and we are cooperating to support their implementation in other Arab countries through training and outreach programs. I believe this is a particularly important facet of our work that can help create the kind of regional environment that will foster peace and accelerate the transition from poverty and wasteful militarism to productive socio-economic cooperation. The quality of peace, combined with the prospects for progress, regionalisation and globalisation in the Middle East, will determine if all in our region advance or retreat, prosper or flounder. Events now unfolding may determine the fate of our peoples for many decades to come.

We have been summoned by history to make this extraordinary journey of peace and reconciliation.

If we fail , if peace remains incomplete, we will all pay a heavy price. But, if we succeed -- if we achieve a just and comprehensive peace that is accepted by all the peoples of the Middle East -- we can build upon our progress, And promote cooperation with the rest of the world that fuels economic growth and cultural respect at the same time.

The challenges we face are enormous, Perhaps even unprecedented in modern human history. But the rewards are equally great. We can see the outline of a possible historic reconciliation among the entire semitic family of Muslims, Christians and Jews.

We have no choice but to complete the peace between Arabs and Israelis -- A peace that must be built upon already existing foundations, And that must be comprehensive and just to be lasting and fruitful.

Thank you very much.

Copyright 1996 by Queen Noor. All rights reserved.