Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, has outlined a broad vision to modernize and invigorate the Arab world by increasing political participation, encouraging economic integration and guaranteeing mutual security at a time of growing U.S. pressure for reforms.
Abdullah's proposed "Arab Charter," to be submitted to an Arab summit conference in Bahrain in March, calls on regional leaders to end "the silence that has gone on for too long" about the "explosive situation in this area," evidently a reference to social, economic and political stagnation that has fueled discontent and contributed to the rise of Islamic radicalism in the Arab world and beyond.
"This apparent paralysis and lack of recourse," adds the declaration circulating among Arab governments, "has provided the opportunity to some to attack and undermine legitimate Arab interests and rights."
This is the second time in as many years that Abdullah has asserted himself as a regional leader. Last year he put forth a peace plan aimed at resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in line with the long-standing proposal for the creation of a Palestinian state in exchange for Arab countries' recognition of, and diplomatic relations with, Israel.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has come under sharp criticism in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, for its closed political system and its treatment of women. Saudi officials and analysts said such an assessment misses the significance of Abdullah's initiative, which they hope will begin a self-critical dialogue that has largely been absent in the Arab world.
While vague in its particulars and uncertain in its prospects, the new call for internal reform by one of the Arab world's most influential figures amounts to another significant step in the post-Sept. 11 era -- and what may soon be the post-Saddam Hussein era.
Some Bush administration officials have talked about using the war on terrorism and the possible war against Iraq to reshape the Arab world in a way that, they say, would increase stability and make peace with Israel more likely. Abdullah's initiative, although a recognition that change is overdue, appears to be an attempt to preempt interference from the outside.
The proposal has been accompanied by a flurry of Saudi and other Arab diplomacy designed to head off a U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple Hussein.
Abdullah last weekend implored Washington to give Iraq's neighbors more time to resolve the matter themselves and expressed doubt that a war would take place. Middle Eastern leaders have crisscrossed the region in recent days warning of the potential for disaster and urging Hussein to acquiesce and meet international demands that he rid Iraq of programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Abdullah met Tuesday in the Saudi capital of Riyadh with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, while Turkey's prime minister, Abdullah Gul, recently visited Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran. The emir of Bahrain met here with the emir of Kuwait, expressing hope for peace, although both countries have made their territory available to U.S. forces assembling for a possible invasion.
"We and Saudi Arabia . . . are striving for an end to the current crisis without a war," Mubarak said after his talks with Abdullah, according to Egypt's official Middle East News Agency.
"What people have made very clear to the Iraqis and continue to make clear is they have to comply with U.N. resolutions, cooperate with U.N. inspectors and they have to come clean," said a Saudi official who did not want to be named. "If he doesn't do that, he'll have to face the consequences."
Analysts and diplomats said the peace initiatives demonstrated a desire by regional leaders not to be seen as endorsing U.S. military action, but they predicted it would not yield tangible results.
"The Arabs are trying to do something to reinsert themselves into the equation and to show their people that they're trying to avoid a war," a Western diplomat based in Kuwait said. "What they want to do is avoid the perception that they're participating in a parade of death on their regional brethren."
More significant in the long run might be the planning for the post-Hussein Arab world. While Abdullah has attracted attention because of his call for peace, the resolution he has circulated does not mention Iraq. It says only that the region should oppose "any external and non-legitimate aggression against any Arab state," reiterating past positions taken by the Arab League.
The Saudi proposal lays out a view of a more progressive Arab world capable of meeting the challenges of globalization and developing technology and communication.
"The Arab heads of state," it says, "decide that internal reform and enhanced political participation in the Arab states are essential steps for the building of Arab capabilities, and for providing the conditions for a comprehensive awakening and development of Arab human resources."
Among other things, it proposes that Arab countries "boost our defense capabilities" and pledge to "stand united against any Arab state guilty of aggression of another Arab state." Complaining that Arab economic cooperation "lacks conviction and credibility," it recommends an Arab free-trade zone by 2005 and a tariffs union by 2010 to create a Common Arab Market.
While promoting private enterprise and free-market principles, the charter avoids specifics and does not spell out what it means by "enhanced political participation" or use the word "democracy."