x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Financial crisis could steer attention from social reform

Delegates at a high-level international forum in Abu Dhabi call for a commitment from G8 governments.

ABU DHABI // Political and social reform in the region may stagnate further if support from the Group of Eight (G8) industrial countries weakens in the global financial crisis, delegates at a high-level international forum in Abu Dhabi said yesterday. Government officials and representatives of non-governmental organisations from more than two dozen countries in and around the Arab world - including Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan - gathered here for the fifth annual Forum for the Future.

The event was launched in 2004 after a summit between G8 countries and representatives from the Broader Middle East and North Africa (Bmena) region. Government and NGO delegates "agreed that since the first forum was held in Morocco, there have been developments of sorts in terms of political reforms", said Habib al Sayegh, spokesman for the civil society organisations. However, progress has been slow.

Mr Sayegh attended a series of closed meetings at the forum. Some delegates called for a renewal of commitment from the G8 governments, saying they had not sufficiently supported initiatives proposed in previous years. "We ask for the G8 countries not to sideline the needs of the Bmena countries in respect to the financial crisis that is ongoing today," said Sheikh Abdulaziz al Khalifa, who represented the Bahrain foreign ministry. He said the lack of commitment from some G8 countries led to the failure of projects, such as the establishment of a centre for entrepreneurs in Bahrain.

David Kramer, an US assistant secretary of state, assured delegates that support of initiatives to foster democracy and development in the Middle East remained high on the US agenda. "US commitment will continue regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming elections," he said. He urged other G8 nations to reaffirm their support. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, was scheduled to attend the forum but cancelled because of the worldwide economic crisis. Two days of meetings in Abu Dhabi began after three days of sessions in Dubai, where civil society organisations discussed proposals for government representatives. The tone at the Dubai meetings was pessimistic; some delegates complained that there was "only bad news regarding democratic reform in the region". The atmosphere continued in Abu Dhabi, where activists complained that although discussions at previous forums led to useful proposals, little was done to make sure they were seen through. "Things are always very positive during the forum itself but very ineffective and inefficient afterwards," said Nour Rustom, of the Lebanese Transparency Association. Everybody is speaking but nobody is listening. Hopefully this year it will be much more effective." NGOs called for a body to be established to monitor political reform and ensure that proposals are put into practice. They also hope that an agreement to strengthen ties between civil society groups and governments, expected to be ratified today, will help projects get started. The document, sponsored by three NGOs and the governments of Italy, Turkey and Yemen, is to be an expression of commitment to engage on issues including improved funding for civil society groups. Delegates are scheduled to meet today for the last day of the forum. Political reform, sustainable development, the empowerment of women and the global food crisis are among topics to be discussed. lmorris@thenational.ae