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(photo credit: Associated Press)
The fourth annual World Economic Forum on the Middle East that closed Monday hosted the highest-level talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 11 months, but the subject of Israel and US foreign policy in the Middle East were topics that caused Arab participants' temperatures to rise.
The political, economic and civil society leaders of the Arab world who attended the three-day forum in Sharm e-Sheikh agreed on the need for change in their societies and discussed in depth how they could work together to create it. Empowering women and youth, educating the next generation for peace and equality, and how to integrate Arab businesses into a global economy were all issues that forum participants discussed at length with each other and without much argument.
But emotions ran high when US leaders participated in the panels. American foreign policy in the Middle East, including its unfaltering support for Israel, were the main targets of criticism by Arab participants who attended a working lunch on Saturday attended by US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and 10 US senators and members of Congress.
"All the problems in the region come from Israel," one female participant said to the US politicians during the question-and-answer period of the luncheon, titled "US-Mideast Relations." "You support them without fail. But what did Israel do for you? It was us Arabs who pushed the Soviets out of the Middle East."
One US politician answered that blaming Israel for the problems of the Middle East was "a cop-out."
The US Congress's rejection of a deal with a United Arab Emirates ports managing company to run seaports in the US was also a recurring and painful theme. Many participants accused the US of being hypocritical. Akbar al-Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, echoed the views of many in a Sunday session on globalization.
"The US is the one urging us toward globalization," said Baker. "But when the Dubai World Ports made an offer, then suddenly the Emirates were falsely accused of terrorism and involvement in 9/11. The media and the politicians spread this idea. And the management of the ports does not even deal with security."
But participants were also critical of their own regimes. "How much is the Arab world investing in research and development? Much less than the rest of the world," lamented Khalid Abdullah-Janahi, chairman of the Executive Committee of Shamil Bank of Bahrain. "Investing in the future is the key. We're not thinking of our grandchildren or our neighbors' grandchildren."
Arab business leaders said that economic change was already taking place in their region. Governments were more supportive, while in the past they were a hindrance, they said. "This is the first time I have ever seen my government support me," said Naguib O. Sawiris, CEO of Orascom Telecom, Egypt. He spoke of how the Egyptian government came to his side in a business deal with India.
The forum registered a number of achievements: A group of Arab businessmen took the initiative at the forum to begin a group which would rebrand the Arab world for foreign investors. Also, Egypt agreed to consider amendments to its open-skies policy. The Forum also launched the Egypt Education Initiative to benefit 820,000 children in 2,000 schools and it linked a group of students with ministers from the region to foster communication and exchange among young people.
Arab women leaders were an active part of the forum. They sat on panels and as one Arab participant noted, they asked more questions than the men. However, much remains to be done in their societies, they said. In a session on gender, Suhair Al-Ali, Jordan's Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, said that the government, the private sector, civil society and the media were all pillars for women's empowerment. Taking a jab at the lack of gender sensitization in the media, she said, "But look around this room. See how they view the importance of gender."
Nayla Moawad, Lebanon's Minister of Social Affairs, took a jab at the conference itself, when she said that education was key to changing people's perception of women's role in society. "I'd prefer we spend money on educational TV ads to knock the ideas into people's heads than spend it on going to conferences where everyone knows what everyone else will say."
Queen Rania of Jordan spoke at the closing session with forum founder Klaus Schwab saying that beyond reform "there are the values we have to instill such as tolerance, respect for human rights, and property rights, that make the processes successful, sustainable and genuine. She announced that the next forum will return to its home base at the Dead Sea in Jordan.