Water, War and Politics

The fly just wouldn't quit. First it perched on Laura Bush's nose, then her upper lip. The First Lady did her best to ignore it, smoothly continuing with her message about the need for women's rights to Middle Eastern leaders gathered in Jordan last Saturday. "Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression," she said. "It's the right to speak and vote and worship freely." Her speech, however, soon was punctuated by abrupt little hand waves--puzzling her audience until they spotted a close-up of the insect on the giant video screens around the hall.

Flies are hardly scarce on the shores of the Dead Sea. But those so inclined could view the fly that penetrated the air-conditioned sanctuary as a metaphor for nature and the intrusiveness of the environment. Mrs. Bush's speech was delivered at a World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting that has become known as "Davos in the desert"--a reference to the better-known WEF gathering held every year in the Swiss ski resort. The theme of the meeting was "Seizing the Moment," but the more than 1,300 delegates who came to Jordan hardly needed the constant reminders that these are momentous times for the region.

Speaker after speaker cited this year's Palestinian and Iraqi elections, the political shifts that forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and--a sure-fire applause line--the fact that Kuwaiti women were allowed their first vote earlier in the month. A WEF-commissioned survey released at the start of the conference was equally upbeat, finding that the Arab world was generally quite optimistic about the future and that 48 percent felt that 2005 will be better than 2004. "Never has there been a greater sense of agreement that the future is in our hands," said Jordan's King Abdullah II in his opening address to the conference. "Today, positive change is in the air across the region."

Inevitably, high-flown statements do not always reflect the mood on the ground. Many at the conference are part of ruling elites who have a vested interest in sheltering their own countries from the regional breezes of change. "Freedom here has priorities," said the Saudi Arabian ambassador to London, Prince Turki al Faisal. "[Our] first priority is to free the Palestinians from Israeli occupation. Among us Arabs, this is a bleeding wound of more than 60 years old. It's affecting us not only psychologically, but also our behavior."

Yet while many delegates cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of the biggest obstacles to Mideast change, a survey by the Al Arabiya television station found that as many as 85 percent of respondents in the region said it was really their own governments that were the main obstacle to reform. "The debate is really between reformers and those who have a stake in the status quo," argued Raytheon International president Torkel L. Patterson at a panel discussion on global security. "It shouldn't be shaped as an Arab-Israeli problem."

Another signal of the opinion gap between rulers and the ruled was underscored by U.S.-based pollster James Zogby. Zogby said that the Al Arabiya survey had influenced its response by the way in which it "stacked" its questions. One of Zogby's own polls showed that respondents in the region ranked improved employment opportunities and better health care as their most important concerns. The Israeli-Palestinian issue was ranked below that. "Political issues ranked low down," he said. "People at the end of the day don't go to bed thinking about politics. They go to bed thinking about their children and wake up thinking about their jobs."

Another subtext of many discussions was whether the region can undergo economic reform without also implementing political reform. Disagreements surfaced here too, with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick arguing that it could not. "It is hard to proceed with sustainable economic reform if you don't have an open political society," said Zoellick, who addressed the conference on its opening day. Amre Moussa, secretary general of the League of Arab states was less convinced. "History says that it is possible you can have an open economic door and a closed political system," he said in a session televised live by Al Arabiya. "Investors will come if you have an open door and give them a 20 to 30 percent return."

That may be easier said than done, if the statistics cited by experts at the WEF meeting are any indication. The Middle East faces profound economic challenges, including the need to create 100 million new jobs by 2020 for the growing number of young people entering the job market and meeting an energy demand that is rising by 4 to 7 percent annually. The last decade has seen 2 million more people living in poverty and investment is being lost to poor infrastructure. The notion that politics can be kept at bay while those economic problems mount may reflect more the wishes of the rulers than a realistic prediction.

Then there are those pesky problems of nature like water shortages. The region includes seven of the world's 10 most water-poor countries, and the demand on an already inadequate supply is expected to double in the next 20 or 30 years.

Water shortages rarely draw the kind of attention attracted by war and violence. Yet those seeking signs of hope need only to have looked at the shoreline outside the conference center to see a symbol of both a problem and a promise. The fabled Dead Sea is drying up, and could be gone within five decades. There's no easy fix, but shortly before the conference began, representatives of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement into conducting a feasibility study for a project that would transfer water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. If successful, it will not only raise Dead Sea levels but also provide significant quantities of fresh water for the region.

The study result will not be available for several years, and the viability of the project is controversial and uncertain. But the mere fact that it was signed between the three groups after years of political stalling was seen as a cause for celebration. "This agreement shows that we can move forward and look beyond our differences," Raed Abu Saoud, Jordan's minister of water and irrigation, told a panel on the topic. The session showcased one of the quieter triumphs of the moment--and its attendance was sparse compared to the numbers that turned out to see Richard Gere take part in a discussion in an adjacent room. But, like the fly on Laura Bush's nose, the Dead Sea agreement may symbolize nature's power to intrude in politics--this time, for the better.