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Clinton tells Mideast leaders to open up political, economic systems

In a visit to Qatar, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warns that the region's problems will worsen unless its leaders tackle corruption and allow greater political and economic freedoms.

January 14, 2011|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives at the Forum for the Future in Doha, Qatar.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives at the Forum for the Future… (Mohammed Dabbous / Reuters )

Reporting from Doha, Qatar — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday bluntly challenged Middle Eastern leaders to open up their political systems and economies, warning that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand."

Clinton, addressing an international meeting in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, said the region's governments need to share more power with civic and volunteer groups to overcome the problems of exploding populations, stagnant economies and declining natural resources.

Citing unemployment rates of 20% or more among the young, she said that "people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order" and are demanding reforms. Clinton said too few Middle Eastern governments have long-term plans to tackle the threats.

She bore down on corruption, warning that citizens in many nations are aware, as they were not decades ago, that most of the wealth in many countries is funneled to a tiny elite. "Corruption is a cancer and eats away," Clinton said.

She said running a profitable business in the region is difficult because entrepreneurs "need to pay people off" to start their endeavors and keep them going.

"You can make a lot of money in a non-corrupt system if you are working hard, and that's what should be encouraged," she said.

She said countries in the region could boost their economies by giving ethnic minorities and women more economic and political freedom. She noted that some Middle Eastern and North African countries still lack universal education.

She said too many countries are resisting the growth of civil and voluntary groups, viewing civil society "as a threat or an enemy of the state instead of a partner."

Clinton's comments came amid widespread protests in Tunisia and recent demonstrations in Algeria. In both cases high unemployment and rampant corruption are believed to have triggered the discord.

Her address reflected the long-standing views of U.S. administrations, but they were unusually blunt in tone and striking coming from an administration that has been accused of not doing enough to promote democracy and human rights. She wanted the speech to be hard-hitting, aides said, fearing that she hadn't been able get through to regional leaders with her previous comments on the issue.

Clinton and regional leaders were meeting at the so-called Forum for the Future, which was launched in 2004 by the Group of 8 leading industrial nations as a way to promote growth of nongovernmental civil groups.

Several Middle Eastern leaders said at the forum that they were making strides to promote such groups but that change can be disruptive in traditional and religious societies.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa said that in the last 11 years his country had "seen a lot of change" in its political system. He said the only downside was "how society is taking change.... There have been hiccups."

Some private groups believe the change has been nominal and contend that the forum has generated little but talk.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies issued a statement saying that since the forum was launched, political and economic freedoms in the region have deteriorated and the organization "has become more of a debate club."

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