The toppling of the heads of state of Egypt and Tunisia on the heels of huge demonstrations there, and the subsequent manifestations of public unrest in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Yemen, have generated a wide range of opinion on the root causes of those events. Some analysts see the protests as a natural outcome of the policies of autocratic regimes that had become oblivious to the need for fundamental political reform, while others view them as the inevitable product of dire economic and social problems that for decades have been afflicting much of the Arab world, most particularly its young.
In either case, unless many Arab governments adopt radically different policies, their countries will very likely experience more political and civil unrest. The facts are undeniable:
The majority of the Arab population is under 25, and the unemployment rate for young adults is in most countries 20 percent or more. Unemployment is even higher among women, who are economically and socially marginalized. The middle classes are being pushed down by inflation, which makes a stable standard of living seem an unattainable hope. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening. The basic needs for housing, health care and education are not being met for millions.
Moreover, Arab countries have been burdened by political systems that have become outmoded and brittle. Their leaderships are tied to patterns of governance that have become irrelevant and ineffective. Decision-making is invariably confined to small circles, with the outcomes largely intended to serve special and self-serving interests. Political participation is often denied, truncated and manipulated to ensure elections that perpetuate one-party rule.
Disheartening as this Arab condition may be, reforming it is neither impossible nor too late. Other societies that were afflicted with similar maladies have managed to restore themselves to health. But we can succeed only if we open our systems to greater political participation, accountability, increased transparency and the empowerment of women as well as youth. The pressing issues of poverty, illiteracy, education and unemployment have to be fully addressed. Initiatives just announced in my country, Saudi Arabia, by King Abdullah are a step in the right direction, but they are only the beginning of a longer journey to broader participation, especially by the younger generation.
The lesson to be learned from the Tunisian, Egyptian and other upheavals — which, it is important to note, were not animated by anti-American fervor or by extremist Islamic zeal — is that Arab governments can no longer afford to take their populations for granted, or to assume that they will remain static and subdued. Nor can the soothing instruments of yesteryear, which were meant to appease, serve any longer as substitutes for meaningful reform. The winds of change are blowing across our region with force, and it would be folly to suppose that they will soon dissipate.
For any reform to be effective, however, it has to be the result of meaningful interaction and dialogue among the different components of a society, most particularly between the rulers and the ruled. It also has to encompass the younger generation, which in this technologically advanced age has become increasingly intertwined with its counterparts in other parts of the world.
Exclusion can no longer work. This admonishment was most forcefully and unabashedly expressed by no less a personage of an earlier generation than my father, Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, in a recent television interview.
Social and political change is invariably turbulent, painful and unpredictable. But the Arab world has an abundance of resources, natural and otherwise, that transcend oil. Most important, it has a substantial reservoir of talent that can be enlisted in the creation of a vibrant social and economic order that would enable Arab countries to join the ranks of those nations that have within a few decades propelled themselves out of underdevelopment, stagnation and poverty. But that can be achieved only if the will to reform is unwavering, enduring and sincere.
By Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, a grandson of the founding king of modern Saudi Arabia and the chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company and the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundations.