I was recently invited by the Club of Madrid in cooperation with the National Institute for International Affairs (NDI) to participate in a seminar on political system and local governance and I was asked to moderate a session on strengthening civil society and women's participation. Before I accepted the invitation I did some research on the organizations that I would like to share with you so that you can also appreciate the principles of their agendas and support their activities and role.
The Club of Madrid and the National Institute for International Affairs are both independent organizations with a role to promote international cooperation to build political and civic organizations and strengthening democracy in every region of the world. The members of the Club of Madrid are 57 former presidents and prime ministers of democratic countries who act as a consultative body for governments, democratic leaders and individuals with initiatives to promote democracy and international cooperation. Their agenda is for action from governments, institutions, civil society, the media and individuals to promote a global democratic response to issues that threaten the world.
According to the Charter of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI)" the institute does not presume to impose solutions nor does it believe that one democratic system can be replicated elsewhere. Rather, NDI shares experiences and offers a range of options so that leaders can adapt those practices and institutions that may work best in their own political environment."
The three day seminar included participants from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon and Morocco and we were all privileged to hear from former heads of states and experienced politicians who shared with us their experiences and world prospective.
The opening session was chaired by Kim Campell former minister of Canada and secretary general of the Club of Madrid with Ken Wollack, president of the NDI. We then listened to presentations from Spanish senators and former mayors in Spain outlining the role of municipal counci1s in sharing the community concerns with the state.
Senator Beccerril, former Spanish minister of culture and mayor of Seville gave an inspiring presentation of the role of municipalities and their relations with government. She explained the significant role of professional civil servants and advisors in addressing community concerns and services. She described how the Municipal movement called upon the Spanish Government
to enact decrees so that local councils could get money from the state budget to implement much needed services to develop cities and provide better conditions for citizens to live in a decent healthy and comfortable environment.
Felipe Gonzalez, Former President of the Government of Spain, delivered one of the most interesting presentations that followed . He discussed the Spanish transition and his central role in it and talked about his special relationship with the King and how the wisdom of the King facilitated an easy and peaceful democratic transition and endeared him to the people in Spain. Also the aspirations of Spanish society to join the EU, the support of the business elite and the empowerment of the weak were other important factors. He emphasized that interaction between the international community and the citizens, the cooperation between the religious authority and political leaders helped Spain reach a consensus that facilitated the peaceful democratic process based on reason.
Another interesting session was about the recent experiences of political change in the Arab world. Idriss Lachgar of Morocco ,Elie Khoury of Lebanon and Ibrahim Hussain of Bahrain presented brilliant presentations of their countries experience toward democracy and identified commonalities and differences as well as critical factors determining or obstructing change like the divisions between the different factions and parties in their societies.
Faiza Amba, the Saudi reporter for the Christian Science Monitor spoke about the Saudi reform movement and the positive changes she has witnessed in the Kingdom upon her return after an absence of three years. She said there was optimism and dynamism that filled the country and a genuine move toward change.
Sadiq AlMahdi the former prime minister of Sudan and member of the club of Madrid gave a detailed analysis of the political and economic challenges in the Arab world. He discussed the success and failures and the way to move forward towards implementing political reforms. He said what is delaying political reforms in the Arab world is the lack of political initiatives among the citizens and the absence of mechanisms to ensure the democratic practice. There is a need to enhance cooperation and communication among the democrats in the Arab countries. There should also be a dialogue between the governments and citizens to initiate the democratic process peacefully without creating a conflict or resorting to violence.
Dr. Ibrahim Al-Quayid an elected member of the Riyadh Municipal Council spoke about the recent Saudi experiences with municipal elections and outlined the councils role and responsibilities as part of the Saudi reforms that need to be pushed further and taken advantage of to facilitate the democratic process.
Jaafar Al-Shayeb an elected member of Al-Qatif municipality and a member of the National Dialogue Center discussed political and legal reforms
in the Kingdom. He reiterated that international expertise and advice from reputable organizations were necessary to help Saudi citizens succeed in their new experience of Municipal elections. He stressed the importance of voter education at this stage. He said Saudi Arabia today needs to strengthen civil society and develop non-governmental organizations.
Abdullah Hassan Abdulbaqi, former Saudi-British banker moderated the Plenary session that discussed the main findings of the groups discussions. He spoke about the current challenges facing the Kingdom and he reiterated the need for international assistance and expertise to support citizen participation in the decision-making process.
During the group discussion on strengthening civil society and women's participation I had the opportunity to present some of the challenges facing Saudi women and government efforts to promote the status of women. Using prime ministers Gonzalez advise of taking advantage of the pockets of freedom available I stressed the opportunities that Saudi women must take advantage of to resist extremism and the discriminations practiced against them by some elements in the society. At this stage it is up to the women to demand for their legal rights and to voice their concerns. As a journalist I genuinely believe that the media in Saudi Arabia can play a more important role in raising the level of awareness among citizens and educating women about their legal rights. The Human Rights organization in the Kingdom continues to expose a lot of violations and abuses against women and the media highlights the ineffectiveness of the courts. The pressure from both the media and the human rights organization has prompted efforts from the government to implement much needed judicial reforms. Moreover the newly formed centre for national dialogue is an attempt to bring together people of different views and attitudes to address social and political concerns in our society so that we can reach a consensus that will hopefully facilitate reforms.
Sen. Beninger, former Minister of the Presidency of Chile spoke of six domestic prerequisites for the implementation of reforms.
He stressed the importance of building a political culture, the promotion of civil society and pressure from the international community to force governments to implement reforms.
He said windows of opportunity should always be taken advantage of to allow for a peaceful transition not through confrontation and conflict.
The media he added should transmit a positive message toward building the future. He spoke of a peaceful transition to democracy through social force and social pressure.
He said in Chile the only respectable power was the church and therefore it played a very important role. This is also the case in Saudi Arabia and therefore there should be a cooperation between the religious leaders and the moderates in order to generate an atmosphere that allowed democratic freedoms and political reforms.
Diego Lopez Garrido, member of Parliament in the Spanish Socialist Party chaired a session on comparative experiences on assistance for reform and democratic development. He said democracy cannot be imported on exported. It is the demand by the civil society in any country that facilitates the democratic process. External support and expertise through trade unions as well as the media help a great deal. Twin town relationships based on friendships between two cities were tools used to support municipal councils carry out their responsibilities more professionally and efficiently. Regional integration in Europe and the request for membership in the European community helped consolidate democracy and was incredibly powerful in the transition to democracy in Spain.
Listening to the experience of others who have gone through the process of a peaceful democratic change made me realize how important it is for Saudi Arabia to end its isolation that has slowed its development and has delayed the process of reform and modernization. It would be very unfortunate if we cannot benefit from international institutions, share our experiences with others, seek advice, and request guidance on mechanisms that advance democratic values, practices and institutions.
Saudi Arabia is a peaceful country that faces many challenges to modernize and achieve prosperity and stability. I am sure we can appreciate efforts of friendly organization that can play a role in supporting the reform movement in the Kingdom today.