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2/12/04 - MIDDLE EAST CHALLENGE - 2004-02-12

As ground-breaking United Nations Human Development reports make clear, many countries in the Middle East fail to protect basic rights and lack political accountability. Such conditions are contributing to a decline of knowledge and economic growth, and are causing Arab countries to fall behind much of the rest of the world. Despair and anger are growing. And that provides a breeding ground for Islamic extremists.

To help restore hope and opportunity in the Arab world, the U.S. has launched what it calls a “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” The U.S. will no longer remain silent while authoritarian governments preserve themselves at the expense of the people’s future. Instead, the U.S. will work with Arab partners in government and civil society to protect human rights and achieve political reform.

But, President George W. Bush says, “true democratic reform must come from within”:

“And across the Middle East, reformers are pushing for change. From Morocco, to Jordan, to Qatar, we’re seeing elections and new protections for women and the stirring of political pluralism. When the leaders of reform ask for our help, America will give it.”

The U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative is intended to help promote political, economic, and educational reforms. Women in the Middle East are particularly disadvantaged, and often lack the same rights as men in regard to family, property ownership, inheritance, and even travel. For this reason, the initiative is also working to improve opportunities for women. As part of the initiative, a regional conference in Jordan this month will address challenges facing women in the legal profession, and the laws and practices that deny women legal equality.

One country where women’s rights are severely restricted is Saudi Arabia. But even there, some progress is being made. Selwa al-Hazzaa [hah-ZAH] is the chief of ophthamology at King Faisal Specialist Hospital:

“My mother didn’t go to school because there were no schools for my mother. And here I am, the next generation, and I’m a full professor.”

In the Middle East, men and women who long for freedom and a future of opportunity now will find they have a strong friend in America.