The events of the last week would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But across the Middle East, for better or worse, the basic elements of democratic society are taking root. Even the last bastion of absolute dynastic rule in the Gulf, the UAE, has opened the way to limited public participation in government. In a speech to mark the federation’s national day on 1 December, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan announced that half of the 40 seats on the Federal National Council would become elected positions, ‘in light of the changes and reforms our region is witnessing’ (see Briefing, page 6).

Washington attributes the spread of the ballot box to its own hard-nosed foreign policies, and there is some merit to its claims. Two years ago, in November 2003, President Bush outlined a new ‘strategy for freedom’ at the National Endowment for Democracy. ‘Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,’ he said. ‘Because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.’

While successive US administrations have long paid lip-service to liberal ideals, this was quite a turnaround as far as actual US foreign policy was concerned. ‘This was a giant step for the man who campaigned for office on the ticket that ‘America is not in the business of nation building’,’ says a Washington-based political analyst. ‘Until that point, reform had not been on the US foreign policy agenda when it came to most Middle East countries.’

As the Bush administration headed for a second term in office, there were numerous signs that the ship of state was being turned around. In 2002, with bipartisan support from Congress, the State Department launched the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which has since channelled $260 million into more than 130 programmes dealing with the development of civil society and supporting social, economic and political reform in the region.

Following the administration’s costly foray in Iraq, there is understandable scepticism about its intentions elsewhere in the region. ‘There is still a big gap between rhetoric and performance,’ says a former US ambassador to the region. ‘A lot of our policy seems to be made by speechwriters these days. The president says it, it sounds good and then the civil servants have to scrabble around afterwards to try and make it work.’

Recently, however, Washington’s proselytising efforts have begun to gather momentum. At the G8 Forum for the Future in Bahrain in November, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the creation of a $50 million Foundation for the Future, which will provide financial and technical assistance to non-government organisations (NGOs) promoting democracy, human rights and the empowerment of women in the Middle East. A second, $100 million fund has also been set up to provide start-up grants for small and medium-sized enterprises in the region, primarily with a view to stimulating job creation. MEPI itself has secured about $110 million in funding for the 2006 financial year, and MEED understands that Rice has approved an even larger $180 million-200 million budget request to Congress for the initiative for 2007.

Firm statement

Hard cash is being found to back up these initiatives, but their impact is still partly symbolic. Wh