Official website of His Majesty King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein
Speech of His Majesty King Abdullah II
At the University of Chicago, King Abdullah II Annual Leadership Lecture
Chicago, US
9 June 2005

Dean Mayer,
Members of the University,

Thank you for your warm welcome. I'm delighted to be back in Chicago and to have a chance to visit this great university. Jordanian scholars and students have enjoyed decades of exchanges with you, and there are distinguished Jordanian faculty and talented students making a contribution here at Chicago right now. I hope the future will bring an even closer relationship. We need to keep the doors open between our people, especially our young people. When this University speaks up for understanding, the Arab World hears it. President Randel, thank you.

My friends,

It is an honour for me to be associated with this lectureship. I believe this is an essential time for public policy dialogue – not just about goals and values, but about how to implement positive change.

Our world is poised to make real advances. But to do so, we need to connect our policy goals to practical mechanisms. On a global basis, that means giving people convincing alternatives to extremism and violence. It means creating a win-win process: one where all sides gain, because of expanded opportunity, peace and justice. And most of all, it means staying the course. Change is not easy, especially when it up-ends decades of division, or lifetimes of a status quo. Only when people see real benefits does the process become self-reinforcing. Until then, those of us who believe in the future, must work all the harder for results, because the alternative – a closed world of hostility and deprivation – is simply not acceptable.

To me, that's the “leadership” in the title of this lecture. And it isn't restricted to a few people. It includes you of the Harris School, who are putting knowledge to work for the common good. It is the many people in my country and region, who are working for peace and reform. And it is the global effort we are all part of – to achieve this century's potential and lift the billions who are still oppressed by poverty and conflict.

Nowhere is this more important than in my region. And this morning, I'd like to talk about what we are hoping for and what we are doing. Let me start by saying a few words about regional reform.

In the past few years, the West has paid a great deal of attention to reform in the Middle East. But you should know that attention from within the region goes back even further than that. Arabs – from across society – know our region must do more to meet the needs and expectations of our people. For us, it's especially important to reach our youth – more than half the population.

The focus has been on three urgent needs: creating opportunity-rich economies, which can create good jobs for our growing population, building transparent, representative governance, to empower our citizens and make them stakeholders in their future, and achieving peace, to end the instability and violence that has hurt our region and the world.

Most Arabs agree that we must move forward. The landmark Arab Human Development Reports contained frank self-criticism of the “freedom gaps” that have held our region back. In Jordan in 2003, we sponsored the Aqaba Declaration which presented policy reform measures in areas that are critical for development. Last year, Arab countries issued the San'a Declaration on democracy and human rights. The Alexandria Conference expressed a regional consensus on reform. And the Tunis Declaration signalled Arab governments' commitment to home-grown reforms and human rights.

These statements of consensus are vital. But equally significant is the new attention to practical measures to make our goals real. Last month, a major initiative, Vision 2010 for the Arab World, was released at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. It offers specific goals in key areas – economic liberalisation for growth and employment, educational reforms to reach and teach the next generation, and good governance initiatives, supporting human rights, media freedoms and political participation. In these areas and more, Vision 2010 provides specific steps for governments and society to implement. It is a practical plan that can be benchmarked, monitored and assessed.

In this effort and others, the Arab private sector and civil society – including the academic world – have played a pivotal role. And that is critical to real reform. The changes involved are comprehensive and structural. Success requires the engagement of people throughout society – educators, community leaders, entrepreneurs and many more. We need their voices at the beginning of the process and all the way through.

Will regional reform succeed? Certainly we are closer to it than ever before. Elections are part of political life for more and more Arabs, women's participation in government is rising, a new generation is energised and globally aware.

Reform is also boosted by new voices affirming Islam's commitment to peace, pluralism and the rule of law. Last year, the Amman Message articulated Islam's moderate core values. It asserted Muslims' right to be full partners in global progress. That message has been echoed by senior religious leaders around the world, and it will be the subject of an international conference in Amman this July.

As should be clear, Jordan has taken a leading role in reform efforts. And that commitment begins at home. Since 1999, we have accelerated an earlier process to open our economy and create stable, democratic political life. The goal is freedom that lasts – a national structure that can serve our people's safety and interests over the long term. It must be a system that will serve our people through the realities of this century – whether that means regional volatility or global extremism or a rapidly changing world economy or challenges not yet known.

Citizens need to become stakeholders in a positive future. That requires effective, inclusive political institutions. Elections are only part of democratic change. There must also be laws and institutions to further promote viable political parties that give citizens a mechanism to participate effectively, press freedoms for an informed citizenry, mechanisms to prevent corruption, human rights protections, an independent judiciary, and more.

We must also transition away from the past. So, for example, we are disengaging the state from control of national media organisations and drafting laws to open the public airwaves to private TV and radio.

We are also working to encourage economic leadership from the private sector. An economy that can grow jobs, and better jobs, gives everyone a stake in the process. So from the beginning, we have put significant emphasis on building opportunity. We have targeted export-oriented investment and streamlined government development efforts. We have looked for the “best practices” of countries around the world, from Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia, to Ireland – another small country that has successfully tackled the challenge of growth.

Perhaps most important, we've made a major investment in education. Jordan has expanded access to quality education, raised curriculum standards, increased teacher training, put computers in classrooms across the country and taught English language early.

These steps help our youth compete on an international level. And that contributes to upward mobility and a growing middle class – key elements of political stability and economic progress.

We also need to strengthen civil society. Before there were political parties, professional unions took on a political role. Now we are developing an active political party system, and as that system matures, unions need to refocus on their core professional role. These are associations that were set up under law in the 1950s to safeguard and improve professional standards of doctors, engineers, accountants and so on. Unlike other civil-society institutions, membership is compulsory – if you want to practice your profession, you must join and pay dues. Such a system can't justifiably impose a single, partisan political position on all members. It is vital to those members, and the public, that these institutions be transparent, accountable and focused on performance.

To date, Jordan's national reforms have had measurable, positive results. International studies rank our country first in the region for educational reform – and also first in measures of poverty reduction. External debt has been reduced by record levels, exports are up significantly, and economic growth has risen over several years. Indeed, economic growth reached 7.5 per cent last year.

These are only some of the elements of a very comprehensive approach. Can we expect the reform process to be a smooth one? I must tell you, No – not if it is real. And today, we are faced with two major challenges.

One challenge is resistance from those who fear uncertainty and change. Some look at the success of policies to date – the strong growth of the economy – and they say: "We are doing just fine. Let's not upset the cart." To thwart the process, they've found excuses not to act, or tried to label reform as coming from the outside.

To this group, I have a very simple message. In no country in the world can today's status quo deliver 21st-century prosperity. Jordan must move forward, must open new opportunities, must reform, if we are to prosper and stay secure. But successful countries across the world have shown that reform is not a zero-sum game. It isn't a process of some winning at the expense of others. By enlarging the pie, reform creates winners across society. That's crucial for all Jordanians, and I am determined to carry through.

This brings me to the second challenge, a sceptical public. Without question, the vast majority of Jordanians want and need what reform promises. But doubters question if it will really happen. Some are real cynics; many just have the attitude of let's-wait-and-see. They wonder whether there's the leadership commitment needed to sustain reform. And they are wary when progress seems slow.

To this group, I say: I hear you. I understand. And I know that the only truly satisfying answer is progress – and success. This is exactly why I am so keen on specific programs and steps – transparent actions that we can monitor, measure and assess. We can't expect there will be no resistance. But we can be prepared. With good oversight, when we see initiatives slowing, we can get in there, find out what or who has blocked the way and put things back in motion. And each of you can play a positive role in keeping the momentum going.

Reform is a process – it can't stand still. This spring, a new government came on board to move up the pace of our efforts. Jordan also has a new, inclusive National Agenda Committee. It's made up of leaders from across society, different political parties, and the private sector. The committee is developing specific national goals and priorities, which we will use to guide government over the next 10 years.

We are also working to decentralise developmental decision-making. In addition to the elected national Parliament, we are creating development regions across the country, each with a directly elected local council. People will have a voice and a stake in development decisions that affect them.

We have moved forward on our Human Rights Centre. And there's new leadership in the country's security institutions with a mandate to protect human rights and introduce greater accountability and transparency.

These are some steps; there will undoubtedly be others. We will continue to monitor progress. We will continue to seek the best ideas and practices. And we will continue to get the message out: reform is a win-win effort. The only way we lose, is if – as a nation – we let others turn back the clock.

The future of my country, the future of the Arab World as a whole, does not stand alone. We need support from the friends of reform. And we need support from the friends of peace.

We must also make headway on regional peace. Jordan has consistently urged a measurable process with a clear end-game and milestones along the way. Today, there are significant opportunities. This year has already seen Palestinians and Israelis re-commit to the peace process. Palestinian President Abbas and his team are building a Palestinian state that will serve its people and be a partner at the peace tables. They need international support.

Recently, Jordan worked with both sides to get a new agreement on the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal – what's been called the “Peace Conduit.” This initiative will protect the environment and enhance water security and energy security for all. We must work to bring it, and other practical projects, off the drawing board.

Regional instability remains a major barrier to the future of the Middle East. It has had global fallout. Failing to solve the issues is simply not an option. It is time for a lasting, just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: two states living beside each other in peace and security. And we must support a stable, unified Iraq, with a rebuilt economy and an inclusive civil society.

My friends,

Recently, I had the privilege of co-hosting a meeting of Nobel Laureates and others from around the world. Peace Prize winners, writers, scientists, even a University of Chicago economist, met in Petra, Jordan. And they applied their creative minds, together, to the critical issues of our age. I urged them to think out of the box – to help us reach across cultures, shift perceptions and make change happen.

The dialogue is just beginning. It is a global dialogue and it includes you. None of us should take a wait-and-see attitude toward the future. Each person has a contribution to make. I hope that in the years ahead, this lectureship will play a part.

Thank you very much.