Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Notes From Jeddah Economic Forum (2007)

Note: The forum was by all means a success despite the initial stumbles. The following are my reflections on the forum. They appeared in Arab News during the course of the forum's three days (Feb. 25, 26 & 27). — Siraj Wahab, Feb. 28, 2007.

Day 1: Profound Words Overshadow Sound-System Mix-Ups

JEDDAH, February 26, 2007 — The opening hours at the Jeddah Economic Forum (JEF) were like the weather outside — dull and dreary. Everything was in fairly bad shape. There were no star speakers. Moderator Sue MacGregor of BBC Radio did try to salvage the situation with her witty comments, but she couldn’t. Most of the speakers were Chinese, and so the language barrier created plenty of obstacles. The translation services provided through the electronic system were absolutely useless. And when MacGregor asked the sound managers to get it right, it got worse.

Of course, what the Chinese speakers were saying was absolutely crucial. They were talking about the new Silk Route, reminding the participants how China and the Arabs once had a historic relationship, thanks to the old Silk Route. They talked about the need for a robust revival of the Sino-Saudi trade ties. They also spoke of the emerging role of the East in the global economy.

Going back to the translation, at one point, the service simply went off for a long time. And when one switched to Channel 2 on the portable electronic device to get the English translation, one could hear what’s called a “cuss line” between the sound engineers and the interpreter. Everybody in the hall was looking puzzled, not believing what he or she was hearing. The volunteers on the sides of the hall were scrambling for cover, and MacGregor didn’t know how to react. She kept her poise, however.

As to what we were hearing, it went something like this. “We don’t have power,” the sound engineer said to the interpreter. To which the interpreter replied: “That is not my problem. How can I translate something that I cannot hear?” Then it got quiet. Again, the system came to life. This time, the interpreter was heard saying: “Oh, now I can hear myself.” Poor soul, he was unaware that the entire audience was plugged in and listening to all the mess that was going on in the sound room.

* * *

The exquisitely-designed and colorfully-decorated hall came alive with the arrival of Jordan’s Queen Rania. Everything changed upon her arrival. Speaking without notes, the elegantly-dressed queen struck an instant chord with the audience with her straight-from-the-heart speech. She called a spade a spade, and the audience loved her. Every sentence drew thunderous applause that reverberated throughout the hall. “She has a great Arabic accent; she is suave and sophisticated and yet simple and speaks the language of the common person. That is what makes her great,” texted an Arab News reader from the women’s section of the forum hall at The Jeddah Hilton. But for Queen Rania, the morning session would have certainly been doomed.

What the queen said has been reproduced in great detail on the Front Page today, yet there were points that need mentioning here. “When I was a child,” she said, “I was told a folk tale about an old man planting seeds in the valley. His grandchild asked what he was doing. The old man said he was planting trees. His grandchild was surprised, and said: ‘Trees take many years to grow! You will never taste their fruit.’ But the old man said: ‘They planted, and we ate, we plant so that you can eat.’” There was tremendous response from the audience.

Queen Rania then went on to say: “The obligation to plant well for posterity is a common thread linking humanity — which is why different versions of that story can be found in many cultures. There is grace and glory in the efforts we make to build a better world — even when those investments sometimes take decades to bear fruit.”

It was her directness that charmed the audience. “We have become overly technocratic. We talk of political and economic reforms, of technological solutions, of security concerns — all of which are essential if we are to progress. But what about the language of the conscience and the speech of the heart — the values of acceptance, love, respect and peace? I suggest that we get back to basics because the need for global healing is all too obvious. I am a mother of four young children — Hussein, Iman, Salma and little Hashem. Take a moment to think of your children. Recite their names in your hearts. What kind of landscape — what kind of future are we preparing for them?”

More clapping followed — and why not? People wanted to hear that. Those words came like a balm to wounded humanity. And they were feeling better, realizing that at least there was somebody who understood their pain and suffering. “Tomorrow’s landscape may not flourish as it should because today the soil is being polluted by violence, mistrust and fear,” she said.

When she finished, they still wanted her to go on putting their feelings into words for the benefit of all who happened to hear her or read her words, wherever they might be.

* * *

There was one little incident that brought smiles to the droll morning session audience. MacGregor was explaining how the voting device worked. Pointing at the little voting machines provided to everyone, she explained: “When the vote is opened, simply press the button on the keypad that corresponds to your answer.” The demo question that was displayed on all the screens in the hall was: “Please register your gender.” The options listed were 1. Male, 2. Female, 3. Both and 4. Don’t know. Even as MacGregor said the results would be displayed in a moment, they were already visible on the screens and were sending everybody into howls of laughter: According to the results, 64 percent were male, 26 percent female, 3 percent both, and hold your breath, 7 percent didn’t know their gender! At lunch, that was the subject of intense discussion: Who fell into that 7 percent.

* * *

The evening session was equally memorable. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was as direct as Queen Rania. His anecdotes about his visit to the ghettos of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the bits of torn cloth he saw being used as shade in Darfur were very moving. “We need to declare a war on poverty,” he said, amid thunderous applause. “I was ashamed of myself when I went into those slums in the Ethiopian capital. I asked my protocol people to leave me alone. I wanted to take a look into their lives all by myself. No sanitation, no hygiene, no water, dozens of people crammed into little rooms and shanties,” he said in a voice that seemed to quiver with emotions. “We need to have equitable distribution of wealth. Let the spirit of solidarity spread from the Jeddah Economic Forum,” he added.

Erdogan was followed by Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States. Although rather brief, he spoke of how Al-Qaeda had almost succeeded in rupturing the ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia. “Things are getting better,” he said, pointing to the growing number of Saudi students going to study in the United States. According to him, young people are falling prey to extremist ideologies because of ignorance.

What started as a dull day ended on a sharper note.

Day 2: American President's Brother Building Bridges With Saudis

JEDDAH, February 27, 2007 — There are many interesting sessions being presented at the Jeddah Economic Forum, but just as much (if not more) is happening on the sidelines of the forum. International and local businessmen, educators and officials from around the world are sharing ideas, building relationships and negotiating business deals — typical networking stuff. It seems as if there is a conversation going on in every nook and cranny of the Jeddah Hilton with the impromptu meetings occasionally spilling out onto the picturesque palm-fringed seaside promenade just across the street.

It was during one such networking sessions that Arab News ran into Mr. Neil Bush, the younger brother of the US president. There was no cause to strike up a business negotiation with the affable brother of the current US president, who runs an educational software company with dealings in the Gulf region, but Arab News did take the opportunity to speak to him.

“The Jeddah Economic Forum has been very productive,” he said. “I have been to this conference four times since 2002. I have seen it develop from the very beginning. There was less participation in the past, now there is more international participation.”

He was among the many awestruck by the speech of Jordan’s Queen Rania on Sunday. “I loved her speech,” he said. “She had a very realistic perspective on things. The panel discussion that followed later was interesting and stimulating.”

Neil Bush’s business card describes him as chairman and CEO of Ignite Learning, a company devoted to developing technology-assisted curriculum. “We are building a model in the United States for developing curriculum that is engaging to grade-school kids, and our model is to deploy this engaging content through a device,” he said. “So it is easy for any teacher to use our device through projectors and speakers. The curriculum is loaded on the device. We use animation and video and those kinds of things to light up learning in classrooms for kids. It helps teachers connect with their kids. We are planning to develop an Arabic version of that model.”

Bush said his company intends to recruit skilled developers to create that Arabic version of the curriculum, focusing on the basics, like science and mathematics. “We are starting to build these local joint ventures outside of the United States so we will have this Arabic content probably by the end of the year,” he said. “But we won’t be penetrating this market thoroughly for the next two to three years.”

Now was the time for me to bring up the elephant in the room: The fact that the policies of his brother (unlike the policies of his father) are deeply disliked in the region for reasons that are obvious to anyone following the current state of affairs.

I had to ask him: How does Neil Bush react to people who tell him they are not happy with his brother’s foreign policy? “Don’t forget, I am the son of a president who I deeply respect and admire and who is admired a lot in this region,” he said, referring, of course, to George H.W. Bush, who liberated Kuwait from an Iraqi occupation in 1990s. “I think my dad has demonstrated in his policy how sensitive he is to culture, how bringing people together and how dialogue and conversation can lead to peace... And even when there is aggression you know you can deal with it in a way that is wise and judicious.”

True, I said, but what about his brother’s strategy? “I think people need to be fair about the position my brother is in,” he said. “My brother is president at a time in history that we have never seen before as Americans. Our country was attacked viciously, and I think everybody in the world recognizes that. The reaction he has had to it in part reflects the deep hurt of the tragedy that struck us on Sept. 11, 2001. He is doing what he thinks is right.”

The younger Bush says he emulates his father when it comes to discussing politics with his brother. “I have a personal policy similar to my dad’s policy and that is I don’t discuss politics with my brother,” Bush said. “He is an elected president. He never appointed me to be his secretary of state. I love my brother as a brother. He has two children; I have six now, so we talk about life in general. We have a lot in common. But he doesn’t talk about my business and I don’t talk about his. When he retires we will have plenty of good chats.”

At this point, the conversation consciously moves away from this topic and toward this whole “clash of civilizations” thing. “I get frustrated when I talk to my American friends about the region in general and particularly about Saudi Arabia,” he said. “There is this common misperception of the Arab people, of the Muslim faith, about the relationship with Saudi Arabia. I think there needs to be leadership on both sides to help bridge the gap of misunderstanding. A lot of my American friends, a lot of Americans in general, have common misunderstandings and the basic myths that they have in their minds about this region.”

So what is Neil Bush doing to rectify how Americans perceive Saudi Arabia with the reality on the Saudi street?

“It is not at all hard for me to explain; it is easy,” Bush said. “I can explain it very well, but people won’t believe me unless and until they come and see it for themselves. For example, I am bringing a delegation today that talks of water-desalination technology — very amazing technology. They have never been to Saudi Arabia. Obviously they can’t help but be impressed by the hospitality and the warmth of the reception and the response of the people that they met regarding their project. They just loved this place. The terrain is interesting to them. You know, romantic and kind of exciting. So there is a lot to be said about coming here and seeing it for yourself.”

Bush says it is important to gain “a more balanced perspective” on Saudi Arabia, and to let go of some of the stereotypes. “If I go by the images of Saudi Arabia portrayed in movies, that of gun-toting mullahs, then I think I will have a very different impression of Saudi Arabia than the one that is balanced and based on reason and facts.”

As a man whose family is deeply involved in the global oil business, Neil Bush has spent a lot of time in the Kingdom and says he’s not only grown to love the people, but also to understand the system. “It’s a kind of tribal democracy that people don’t talk about very much,” he said. “So it hurts me quite a bit and causes me anguish over the ignorance outside about Saudi Arabia.”

Indeed, not every system needs to be a Western-style Jeffersonian representative democracy, does it?

Day 3: Big Stars in the Lobby

JEDDAH, February 28, 2007 — On Day Three, most of the action was on the sidelines. Networking was in full flow throughout the last day. It was during the early-morning hours when the Arab News team caught up with former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

A principled man, his eyes reflected steely determination — the same determination that made him refuse to commit Canadian forces to Iraq in 2003. The United States was quite miffed at him at that time, and the American media had a lot of fun at his expense (unwilling, it seemed, to recognize Canada’s noble efforts in attempting to stop the Rwanda massacres in 1994 while the US was fearful of committing its own peacekeeping forces). But Chrétien didn’t waver in light of this criticism.

“If military action proceeds without a new resolution of the Security Council, Canada will not participate,” he said at the time in the Canadian House of Commons. That made him more popular worldwide. That popularity was reflected at the forum where people greeted him and shook his hand.

In his conversation with Arab News Editor in Chief Khaled Almaeena yesterday, he was cheerful and in a mood to indulge in repartee. “You know I quit politics because I promised my wife that I would have none of it when I turn 70. And sure enough, I kept my word. I quit politics when I was 69 years, 11 months and one day old.” Everybody around was quite impressed.

* * *

At the other end of the Hilton lobby was Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. He was mobbed by women who seemed very eager to shake hands with him and register their support. Many wanted photos with him, and he didn’t decline their requests. He acknowledged them politely and asked them to remember him in their prayers. One of his many fans, Alshaima’a Almaddah, an English major at the King Abdul Aziz University, later told Arab News that he is admired for his bold stands. “He is trying his best to come up with solutions to some of the most pressing problems in the region. We all support him. He is articulate, and his eyes see out to the horizon. He knows the pulse of the Arab people. He says what we all feel should be said,” she said.

* * *

After lunch, when everything seemed to be quieting down, all eyes turned in one direction. “Walesa, Walesa,” said Almaeena. Moments later, the former Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa was surrounded by a huge number of admirers. “You live in our hearts,” Almaeena told him. “I have always wanted to shake hands with you. The whole world draws inspiration from you. You are a courageous man.” Almaeena’s reaction was understandable because here was the man who helped break the back of communism in Eastern Europe.

Walesa seemed to appreciate the attention and willingly answered, with the help of a translator, a couple of questions from this diarist. “I am very impressed by Arab values,” he said. “When we lay the foundations of the new world, we will need your values. They are essential.”

Walesa felt the West should take a look at how the situation in this country has been managed. “In Europe and the United States we can observe anarchy in democracy. There is a serious lack of one stable authority. Oftentimes situations in democracies get out of control. If we try to combine your ideas with ours, maybe we can have a better solution. That is why I am here at the JEF,” he said.

Walesa, the son of a carpenter who went on to become the president of Poland, was certainly upset with an unbalanced world. “It is not good. We don’t know how to react in this unipolar world. We have only one superpower, the United States, and it has taken the role of a traffic cop manning a crossroad. We are confused. We don’t know whether to support the United States or the United Nations. The US does not have the authority to act in many areas. It is the United Nations that has the authority to act, but it is not effective. So who should we support of the two? That is the question.”

Walesa said the pace of progress in the Kingdom amazed him. “Of course there is this element of oil money in the progress, but then other countries also have oil and have not been able to move as fast as you are moving under King Abdullah. Besides, here you have a successful combination of private and government sectors. I am attracted to this system.”

* * *

The forum was by all means a success despite the initial stumbles. The story will never be complete without acknowledging the role Saudi women college students played. They were at the forum in large numbers lending a helping hand to the organizers. They were proud to be there. Arab News talked to some of them, and they were all happy to be contributing their might to the success of the organization.

“It was challenging, but as volunteers we worked as a great team,” said 18-year-old Doha Ghouth, an English major at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. “Many of us had no background in economics. So we wanted to meet these incredible people from all over the world. We did. But our work kept us busy most of the time. We worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.”

The group of volunteers underwent two weeks of training at Effat College and met a couple of times with officials at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“This was my first time as a volunteer at the JEF,” said Ferdous Abbar from the College of Business Administration. “We contributed not just to the forum but to the country at large by projecting the right image of Saudi women. We showed the world that Saudi women are extremely capable. It was good to hear the positive feedback from people. Being with influential people encourages us to be like them. So this is not just volunteer work. It means a lot to us.”

“It was awesome,” said Umniah Al-Zahery, who works as an executive assistant of a company. “When I heard about the volunteer program for JEF, I immediately seized the opportunity. Despite the training, everything was a new experience. To get to know all these people is unbelievable. Where else could we get such a chance? I thought they only would discuss trade between countries, but when I came here I found that was not the case. It was a pleasant experience.”

“Of course, we have improved our communication skills and also hopefully cleared many misperceptions about Saudi women in the outside world,” said Nada Al-Mojadedi, a marketing student at CBA. “I want everyone to know that Saudi women are capable of improving their society. We can make a difference in the world. Being here was big step forward for us. No two opinions about that.”

“The reasons I volunteered were because I believe in social responsibility. I want to do something for my country,” said marketing major Sara Abdullah Bakhashwain, a young lady who has been raised both here and abroad. “Honestly, in most of the countries I have visited they have this perception that Saudis have a lot of money, sun, oil and camels. They wonder why I am walking around in jeans in the West. They don’t know that we Saudi women are educated people. They need to correct their perceptions of us. They need to come here and see for themselves.”

The volunteers were not just Saudis. There were Pakistani and Indian women students among them. One Pakistani volunteer was the young finance student Sumera Ghias. “It was a fascinating experience,” she said. “It really exceeded my expectations. I had an idea that I would just go around helping people at this forum. Actually I learned a lot. It definitely helped me improve my communication and networking skills.”

Another Pakistani volunteer, Hiba Ali, was equally excited. “It was the first such opportunity for me to get started with this networking phenomenon. We business students can gain a lot from the speeches and the interactive sessions at such prestigious forums.”

As leaders of the world came to learn and understand more about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, it gave all of us a chance to learn more about them. It also served as a reminder that the powerhouse economies of the world have their foundations in education and empowerment of all their people to power those economic miracles. These incredible young Saudi women showed us they are ready, willing and able to join in.

The Jeddah Economic Forum should be a wake-up call that the world won’t wait for Saudi Arabia. Too many nations are anxious for the trade and commerce that make nations prosper. If Saudi Arabia doesn’t start moving forward in overcoming all its economic challenges soon, then it will take a very long time to catch up.


Anonymous Yasir Hamed said...

The percentage of male, female, in between was rigged.

Registration at JEF was a huge mess, something to do with the ignoramuses from 'Event Bookings' who flew in from the UK.

April 12, 2007 at 3:34 AM  
Blogger Siraj Wahab said...

Thank you for pointing that out, Mr. Hamed. I appreciate.

May 10, 2007 at 12:32 PM  

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