Improving the state of the Middle East

THE MONTH OF March saw leading political, business, religious, academic, media and public figures once again gather at the otherwise tranquil Dead Sea resort in Jordan for the World Economic Forum on the Middle East. The WEF is often described as the world’s “talking shop” and, after the success of its annual Davos meetings, the WEF has expanded its dialogue catchment area to add regional forums that include voices from Latin America, Russia, Africa, East Asia and, of course, the Middle East.

Whilst the G8-meetings may arouse the ire of the anticapitalist/ globalization pressure groups, the WEF, however, with its mission of “improving the state of the world” has managed to avoid most of it. Even if Klaus Schwab’s WEF has not generated, as much real change in the world as one may have hoped, it has, nevertheless, forced the global stakeholders to grapple with many serious problems – which otherwise would have been all too easy to avoid. The wider problems that globalization has brought in its wake, such as the increasing economic inequality, rapidly deteriorating environment, social and political exclusion, the rise of extremism, etc, can only be ignored at our peril. When the young, or not so young, CEOs attend a WEF forum and listen to the multitude of perspectives and come to terms with the immediate crisis facing the global community and the data that is presented, at least they will return home, perhaps, with an inkling of self-awareness that the pursuit of the bottom line may not be the only thing to be concerned with. The current evidence on the impending environmental catastrophe should be enough to propel governments, private and the “community” sectors to talk to one another and find solutions that work across the various sectors of society.

The world is not dominated by only bipolar or a unipolar centers of power, but also by an ever-increasing and defused array of non-state actors that include multinationals, international NGOs, media corporations, and even religious movements. Many of the larger corporations are actually more powerful than many smaller states.

The three-day gathering at the Dead Sea, therefore, examined economic, political, social and religious diversity in the Middle East at a time when it is experiencing unprecendented economic growth and social change. Such diversity has heralded economic prosperity, but the unevenness of development means that many are not reaping its rewards or experiencing any meaningful structural change. Dubai is booming, true enough, but what of Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad and now Beirut? Hyper-boom, on the one hand, hyperparalysis, on the other!

The plethora of sessions, plenaries and workshops analyzed and debated how new industries are playing a role in reshaping the region’s increasingly diversified economies; how individuals can kick-start entrepreneurial initiatives; stability and peace in the Middle East; examining the prerequisites for successfully facing challenges in a time of almost uninhibited transformation; and the impact of entrepreneurs as role models and the challenge of ethical investment. Sessions also tackled the global water challenge: the Middle East is “home to 5% of the world’s population, yet it has only 1% of the world’s freshwater resources”. According to a UNDP report in 2006, the Middle East is one of the most water scarce regions of the world and the region-wide tensions are compounding the problem. The water problem its scarcity and rights to access – is set to become of the most important issues in the political agenda in the coming years.

No less important was the theme of the sustainability of rapid urbanization. According to Joachim Kundt, CEO of Siemens UAE, by 2030, 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. Urbanization in the Middle East was outpacing that of Europe and America, but could economic development keep pace with such urban growth? If not, what social consequences are we likely to expect in cities such as Cairo and Dubai?

There were also no shortage of personalities. The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, shared the podium with the Iranian foreign minister; Israeli and Palestinian business leaders launched a joint-business initiative, whilst Shimon Peres and Amre Moussa argued out the political intricacies of the peace process; US, Iraqi and Iranian leaders discussed Iraqi affairs and the problem of regional stability, intervention and security; H.M. Queen Rania of Jordan led, eloquently, a timely session on philanthropy and activism and how joint action between public and private sector could help mobilize civic society and encourage civic engagement, social responsibility, and a spirit of volunteerism among people.

The highlight of the Forum, however, was the announcement by H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, that he was setting up a new foundation with a US$10 billion endowment to promote human development. It could not have come at a more urgent time. The new Mohammed Bin Rahid Al-Maktoum Foundation was to invest in education and knowledge-development in the region. He urged Arab leaders not to neglect the gross economic disparity that exists in the Middle East or the failure to provide an environment conducive to knowledge. Illiteracy is running at around 18% in the under-15 age group and 43% among females’ – a knowledge-based society, therefore, is a priority for the Middle East and vital for sustainable development.

Islam was also the topic of much discussion throughout the Forum. Although there were sessions dealing with the successes and failures of Islamist parties in the political process and also the problem of identity and reform that included writers such as Karen Armstrong, Faisal Abdul Raouf and the French scholar, François Burgat, the more sustained discussions took place in the C100 West-Islamic initiative’s sessions at the WEF. In a keynote speech that was one of the most engaging of the whole programme, HRH Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan outlined the situation on the deteriorating relations between the West and the Islamic communities (for the text of the speech, see the following article). In a firm, yet nuanced, and powerfully articulated tour-deforce, Prince Ghazi warned that things would get worse unless governments implemented policies that had trickledown effect to the population and positively affected popular culture. He also stressed that religious extremism could only be combated through giving the traditional/orthodox voices of the Islamic faith a platform rather than calling for a secular reformation or by co-opting ultra-progressive groups who hold minimal constituency among Muslims. Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Mufti of Egypt and a notable representative of such a traditional/orthodox posture, called the C100 group to develop a code of conduct among religions that would attempt a similar outcome as the Amman Message has been pivotal to Muslim unity in the face of extremism.

The preliminary results of the Gallup Poll of the Muslim world were also revealing. Dalia Mogahed and her team are producing the largest, and most in-depth study of Muslim opinion ever, covering more than 90% of the world’s Muslim population. The Gallup results together with the Muslim American poll released by the Pew Research, will provide the kind of data that organizations and policymakers need to get their hands on to assess patterns and trends in Muslim opinion and demographics.

Achieving stability, security, and peace in the Middle East will require inclusive solutions and solidarity among the various communities that live in the region. With the escalating bloodshed in Iraq; the unrest in Afghanistan; the worsening religious friction in Lebanon; the weekly Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory and the tit-for-tat reprisals by Hamas & co; and so on – it is difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel. The destabilizing effects of proxy wars must be put to an end, and one can only hope and pray that efforts such as those of the WEF, which put a premium on dialogue and debate as a way of out of human conflict, prevail in the end.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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