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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday urged Arab leaders to work with their peoples to implement reforms or see extremists fill the void, warning the region's "foundations are sinking."
The chief US diplomat told her Arab counterparts the region's peoples "have grown tired of corrupt institutions" and "stagnant" politics against what she said is a backdrop of depleting oil and water resources.
"Too few countries", she warned, have "plans" to deal with the worsening outlook.
"In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand. The new and dynamic Middle East that I have seen needs firmer ground if it is to take root and grow everywhere," she said.
Clinton said the region's leaders "in partnership with their peoples" have the capacity to build a bold new future where entrepreneurship and political freedoms are encouraged.
"It's time to see civil society not as a threat but as a partner," Clinton told Arab leaders in Qatar attending the Forum for the Future, a 2004 US initiative aimed at promoting such partnerships.
"It is time for the elites in every society to invest in the futures of their own countries," she said.
"Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while but not forever.
"Others will fill the vacuum," if leaders failed to offer a positive vision to give "young people meaningful ways to contribute," Clinton warned.
"Extremists elements, terrorist groups, and others who would pray on desperation and poverty are already out there competing for allegiance and competing for influence.
"So this is a critical moment, this is a test of leadership for all of us," the chief US diplomat said.
For Clinton, the forum is the highlight of a tour of the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Oman and Qatar that was organised around her push for a better partnership between governments, business and civil society.
The forum was set up by the George W. Bush administration so that leaders from the Middle East and North Africa, the Group of Eight leading industrial countries, and delegates from business and civil society could meet to discuss reform.
Clinton said the G8 was more than ready to work with any country in the region over how to liberalise their economies and create more economic opportunities.
She made her own recommendations, including calling for rooting out corruption because the scourge makes it "too costly and frustrating" to open a business.
"It's important to demonstrate that there is the rule of law," she said, referring to the need for business leaders to know they will be treated fairly against competitors.
She also stressed the need to educate the workforce and respect for all sectors of society. Both sexes, various religious sects and tribes should have the same opportunities to work and build a business.
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