Democracy, development and free trade

AT THE recommendation of Qatari Ambassador Abdulla Ahmed Yousif Al-Mutawaa and his deputy, Eihab Abdelwahab, the Emir of Qatar – Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani – invited me to attend the “Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade” on May 3 to 5 in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The forum’s lively format is patterned after the “Doha Debates” hosted by Tim Sebastian and broadcast worldwide by BBC.

Democracy. The uninitiated may find it strange why a non-Western kingdom ruled hereditarily by the Al Thani family should sponsor weekly debates and an annual forum on democracy. The explanation: though not identical with the British constitutional monarchy, Qatar is governed by a Constitution ratified by 96 percent of its voters in 2003. It became effective two years later on June 8, 2005.

This Constitution authorizes the Emir (or king) to appoint the prime minister and other top officials. Free elections for the 29-member Central Municipal Council were held for the first time in Qatari history on April 1, 2007. Women were allowed to vote and to run as candidates. This is a significant achievement in an Arab-Muslim country, especially because this election is expected to be followed by broader parliamentary polls soon. In sum, though wealth and birth are still valued social norms, industry and talent are equally cherished in governance and business interactions.

The annual forum, now on its ninth year, was star-studded, intelligent, highly animated and freewheeling. Some 300 foreign invitees (plus about 200 locals) were lavished with Qatari hospitality, like business class tickets on Qatar Air, limousines and 5-star hotel accommodations. Three Filipinos, Senator Miriam D. Santiago (who presented a paper on the international responsibilities of states), lawyer Miguel Valera, chairman of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and I were among the invitees.

During the discussions, it became almost consensual that democracy could not be imposed externally. It is not an “export product” of the United States or of any dominant world power. It must respect local history, culture and values. It is developed over a long period of time during which the people themselves evolve their own concepts and principles of self-rule. Sometimes, there are more pressing issues like security and food than political representation.

To former French President Jacques Chirac (an obvious star of the forum), there can be no democracy without social balancing, that is, sharing resources with the poor and the powerless. Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhannen (another star), on the other hand, stressed the rule of law as an essential of true democracy. To me, however, the minimum “must” of democracy is the freedom of the people to oppose their rulers and to change them periodically through peaceful methods.

Development. In his keynote address, the Emir focused on the financial crisis that “has gone out of control.” He estimated that $20 trillion (repeat, trillion) would be needed to “bailout the financial system.” This sum is much more than the total amount used to wage World War II ($3.6 trillion), to rescue Europe after World War II via the Marshall Plan ($115.3 billion) and to land a man on the moon ($237.5 billion) put together.

The Emir also warned that “more dangerous than the economic turmoil is the cultural and moral crisis – the culture of consumption and getting rich quickly without production.” He said the remedy “is not to abandon market laws and free trade or selective protectionist measures or to reject planning entirely. The solution lies in balancing between responsibility and freedom, between market laws and public social responsibility.”

The Qatari ruler is eminently qualified to speak on this issue because his country has experienced unprecedented growth during the last decade. Doha is a city that is obviously racing to build the most numerous skyscrapers in the Middle East. If Dubai is proud of its “Jumeira Palm” development that is seen from space satellites, Qatar can also point to its mammoth “Pearl” reclamation project where hundreds of super condominiums, hotels, shopping malls, tourist centers and entertainment areas (but no gambling) are abuilding.

Free trade. Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, an economist, agreed that unbridled free trade must bow to some state regulation to curb greed and distribute prosperity more equitably. How to do this balancing act is the tough problem.

In the end, the financial crisis will result in what former French Prime Minister Alain Juppe calls “the end of the Western monopoly of history and the world economy,” and what another panel speaker, Claus Schwab – the CEO of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland – refers to as a “transformational rearrangement of democratic institutions.”

Similarly, Sir David Frost of the United Kingdom predicts a shifting of world power from being “bi-polar” (the United States and the Soviet Union) in the recent past and uni-polar (with the US as the sole superpower) at present to multi-polar (the US, European Union, the so-called BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India and China – and the oil exporting countries) in the near future.

Agreeing but still defiant, former US Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England concluded that no matter what the shape and mold of this planet would be after the financial meltdown solidifies, his country would remain dominant because the “US was really a microcosm of the world.”

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