Before the World Leaders Forum at Colombia University
New York, US
23 September 2011
In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Compassionate
Thank you for your warm welcome. I am very pleased to visit this great university once again, and I am delighted to take part in the World Leaders Forum, especially at a time of such great significance for my region.
All of you gathered here today are fortunate to belong to this center of excellence. Columbia’s intellectual leadership is matched by its keen awareness of the challenges facing the rest of the world, and its commitment to reaching out to peers in my region.
Lee ... a man of few words and plenty of good deeds; someone who puts his values front and center of any decision he makes ... has, along with the leadership here, worked closely with my wife, Rania, to establish the outstanding new Middle East Research Center in Amman. Scholars and students are collaborating with Jordanian academics in forward-leaning initiatives. Colombia graduates are working in vital sectors across the country. These partnerships are absolutely essential in building bridges of understanding between your country and mine.
A Native American proverb tells us: “It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.”
Today, in Arab lands, not thousands, but millions of voices are telling the world their story. This story is of aspiration and struggle, of discontent with the past and dreams of the future.
Three sets of voices are especially distinct.
First of all are the voices of the unemployed. Joblessness is a global problem today, but no place is the problem more acute than in my region ... and especially for our young people - the biggest youth cohort in our history, and the majority of our population. Today the Middle East has the highest youth unemployment rate of any region in the world. More than one in four young people lack good jobs ... more, in some places. They are saying: We want to see accountability; we want government that responds to our needs. And their voices must be heard.
A second set of voices are those of women and girls. They are a vital source of ideas and energy for our entire region. But a heavy blanket of burdens - societal expectations, discrimination, prejudice - has stifled their options and contributions. Yet women have been at the forefront of the Arab reform movement, their brave faces pictured on the front lines in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, demanding open, transparent government. They are telling us: We want to fulfill our potential as citizens and leaders. And their voices must be heard.
The third set of voices are those of the marginalized. These are the old and the young, the men and the women, of whatever sect or social standing, who have not been fully included in social, political, or economic life. They are the poor and the under-served; the isolated and the passed-by. They are telling us: Give us social justice and an inclusive role in our countries, with all the rights and responsibilities thereof. And they, too, must be heard.
The Arab Spring is a new beginning for our region. But it has only been the beginning. Demanding reform is the first step. Delivering it is an entirely different - and much more difficult - proposition.
Change is a process, not a position. And make no mistake about it, this will not be a homogenous process, but one that is defined by each country’s specific history, circumstances and challenges.
Some Arab countries have a list of Herculean tasks that most countries have taken generations to solve. How will they tackle them? What are the answers?
I cannot say for sure, and I am not alone. In fact, one of the defining features of the past year has been that of uncertainty: the big unknowns, that even the most plugged-in experts on our region are reluctant to predict.
But here is what I do know, for sure: failure to change is a lose-lose proposition. Without reform, our countries can deliver less and less of what all people want - a prospering, secure future that everyone has a stake in creating.
Since assuming the honor of serving Jordan in this position, my commitment to reform has been unwavering. We have seen some real successes, but we have also witnessed resistance and inertia. The outcomes have not always been what we wanted. That is not to say, that we, in positions of responsibility, do not assume some of the blame. Give me a leader who claims that every decision he ever made was the right one, and I will give you someone who does not accept his own humanness and therefore is not fit to serve humanity.
To be sure, a turbulent era has made the road to reform much tougher to navigate. In twelve short years, Jordan has witnessed an uprising in the West Bank; the attacks of 9/11; the ensuing war in Afghanistan; the invasion of Iraq (sending a stream of refugees into Jordan, equivalent to 15 percent of our population - and creating a huge strain on national resources).
And that is not all. There was also a war in Lebanon; a war in Gaza. And to make things more complicated, we faced multiple global economic crises, directly affecting people’s lives: food; energy; finance for growth and jobs.
Today, we are where we are. And for me, the Arab Spring brings the opportunity to create the real reform we have sought. Its impetus for action has offered new openings for results. In Jordan, we hope the path will be an evolutionary and consensual one. We want to work together to identify national priorities and create the conditions for a better future: fair, inclusive, and efficient governance ... more opportunity, and more access to opportunity, in an open, growing economy ... and progress in development that serves people’s needs.
This revitalization process has begun. Jordan's aim is comprehensive, homegrown, structural change, on multiple fronts: political, legislative, and economic. To ensure that momentum is not lost, we have set near-term deadlines, and we are holding to them.
A core effort addresses our Constitution, the cornerstone of Jordan’s political life. Comprehensive amendments are now moving through Parliament. Key provisions establish an independent Constitutional Court, an independent Elections Commission, and safeguards for civil rights and freedoms. We are reinforcing the separation of powers among the branches of government, and encouraging political participation. Corresponding legislation includes a new Elections Law, a new Political Parties Law, and more.
Reform is not easy but it is going forward. I am determined to stay the course. But this is a course that must be shared by all. Democracy is not just a system of governance but a way of life. Important as they are, elections are not the sole marker of freedom and progress. Democratic processes will only half-serve our people if they are viewed in isolation from constitutional liberties that guarantee freedom of speech and religion, the rule of law, justice, and the protection of minorities.
These are values that must define our interactions as of today. Our people must start to assemble not only on the streets but also around party lines with well-thought out political, economic and social platforms. Only then can political life evolve and mature, with participation, deliberation, and informed decision-making.
The Arab Spring is as much a cry to reclaim dignity as it is to let go of old systems and regimes. And Arab dignity has been wounded and left bleeding time and again by a critical issue that has fomented anger and frustration over many decades: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Today many in Israel would like to reassure themselves, and the rest of you, that the unrest in the Arab street is unrelated to them. But the sea of change we are witnessing will forever color the nature of the relationship between Israel and its neighbors. Today Arabs are demanding to be treated as equals and for Israel not to be treated as the ‘exception’ when it comes to international law and obligations.
The inflexibility of the Israeli stance on negotiations, settlements, and Palestinian statehood is unsustainable. As long as short-term political gains continue to trump strategic interests, Israel will continue to short-change its people's future. What is required, perhaps, is an Israeli Policy Spring that will see its politicians break free from the siege mentality and engage with its neighbors as equals.
A final resolution to this conflict is long overdue. From time to time I read my great-grandfather’s reflections on the Arab-Israeli issue, to remind myself just how little has changed in more than sixty years. My father King Hussein’s prayer for peace still rings in my ears.
Today, I selfishly hope that peace will be ours to witness. Because the Arab Spring is not about a better future, it is about a better today.
Thank you very much.