Readers, you have been with me to the World Economic Forum on the Middle East before. Last year, it was in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Two years ago, it was by the Dead Sea in Jordan. This year, we are back at the Dead Sea. You know who the World Economic Forum people are: They’re the ones who have that big jamboree in Davos, Switzerland, every January. The Middle East Forum is kind of Davos in the Desert.
Enough preliminaries, time to get started? Okay.
‐A colleague of mine remarks that you know globalization has arrived in Jordan, for there is a Starbucks at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. (Queen Alia was a wife of the late King Hussein.)
‐You think of Jordan as deserty and flat, and so it is. But it is not without mountains and valleys. In fact, on the drive from Queen Alia to the Dead Sea, you get a taste — a little taste — of Switzerland, though redder and sandier.
‐I have remarked on this before, and will remark on it again: King Abdullah is everywhere. I mean, he is everywhere in pictures. You see his visage in grand buildings, in humble, shack-like shops, in taxi cabs. Often, he is pictured next to his father, Hussein. Sometimes, he is pictured next to his wife, Rania.
Frankly, I get a bit queasy when I see so many pictures of The Leader. It strikes me as a little North Korean, a little culty.
Longtime readers will have heard the following before: When I went to Washington, D.C., as a college student — somewhat naïve and very idealistic — I was shocked to see pictures of the president and vice president in every government office. It seemed a little . . . well, undemocratic, and un-American. Even a little 1984-ish! And I very much liked the president and vice president of the time (Reagan and Bush).
Anyway, there are so many pictures of King Abdullah around, you would almost think you were in a kingdom . . .
‐You see him on the front pages of newspapers, and on the covers of magazines, too. Surprisingly, he gets a very good press in Jordan. But you know? It’s hard to begrudge him such press, because, where Arab leaders are concerned, he’s about as good as it gets. He is modernizing, reforming, liberalizing.
And he may be regarded as the symbol of his nation: young, dynamic, confident. As Jordan likes to see itself, so Abdullah is. Here he is on the cover of Jordan Business (“Jordan’s Premier Corporate Magazine”). He is in a blue dress shirt, collar open, sleeves rolled up, hands hitched in pockets, a can-do smile on his face. The cover lines are “In Good Hands: HM King Abdullah II: The Economics of Change.” See what I mean about good press? The American stomach must dance a little. Still, this is not necessarily wrong press.
‐Jordan is eager to present itself as an Arab tiger, or would-be Arab tiger, and the road to the conference site is dotted with a sign:
Established Rule of Law
Thriving Private Sector
Competent Labor Force
Gateway to the Middle East
Live It. Love It!
So there you go.
‐Queen Rania, too, is very much a part of the Jordan image, a partner of her husband and king. As I’ve noted before, she is a fairy-tale princess, or queen: pretty as a picture. But also very much a participant in civic affairs, even an Arab leader, you might say. She addressed a women’s conference in Amman recently, and a local paper recorded a few of her remarks:
“You are some of the Arab world’s finest ambassadors. As you go about your daily meetings, your international phone calls, and your global travel, you are dispelling myths, correcting misperceptions, and showcasing the multifaceted realities of Arab women.”
Rania further said, “Of course, many of the old obstacles still exist, and I do not want to pretend otherwise. We have a long way to go in changing cultural mindsets; in convincing society that we can be wives, mothers, and career women; in promoting gender-friendly legislation; in getting more women into parliament and decision-making roles; and in keeping girls in the workforce after university.”
After university: You can tell that the Jordanian English is a bit British.
‐King Abdullah’s English is a combination of American and British — but mostly it is American. He was a student both in the U.S. and in the U.K. Occasionally he’ll say “demahnd” and “advahntage” and other things that remind you of the Old Country. Otherwise, he would be natural in Peoria.
‐The Forum on the Middle East has over 1,200 participants, from over 50 countries. About ten heads of state or government are here. One who is missing is Mahmoud Abbas, of the PA: He had to stay at home to deal with the latest fighting between Palestinians.
As usual, I am impressed with the Iraqi officials — Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister, is present. They are some of the bravest people on earth. And they are some of the most beleaguered. They face enormous, historic pressures, and they are subject to perpetual, lacerating criticism, from all quarters. In their offices and homes, they face constant death threats, and many of them have seen their loved ones killed. The burdens of other politicians are comparatively light.
Salih is a particularly distinguished, elegant, and dignified man — also an articulate one. I doubt there is a more effective spokesman for Iraqi democracy, and for Arab democracy at large. He has the air of someone who knows that a lot is at stake.
Yes, yes, Iraqi politicians have made mistakes — big ones. But, you know? They are engaged in a horribly difficult project that has huge consequences for us all. And it is only humane and logical to cut them a little slack. The Golden Rule, as always, applies here.
‐Some more about those thousand or so participants: They are mainly Arabs and Muslims from all over. Some are in flowing robes and headdresses; some are in Savile Row suits; some suits are a little less tony. There is a lot of kissing going on: kissing between men, as they greet each other.
Which reminds me of a remarkable moment I witnessed in Davos a couple of years ago. Do you remember? Prominent Arab official greets prominent Arab (female) journalist. She says to him, “We can kiss each other, we’re not in the Middle East.”
‐On the side of the WEF conference is a G-11 summit. What’s the G-11? This is an idea of King Abdullah’s, hatched not very long ago. The G-11 is composed of what officials call “lower-middle-income countries” — seriously — striving to “move up the ladder.” These countries are not yet ready for the G-8, but they want to graduate to that elite club. Currently, they are too poor to rank in the elite, but too rich to be major aid recipients. They are sort of caught in between. They are economic adolescents. And they have banded together, to help one another.
Among these countries are Indonesia, Morocco, Ecuador, Pakistan, Georgia, and, of course, our host, Jordan.
‐I just love this (and I have related it to you before): In the conference center — the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center — is a networking area. And you know what it’s called? The Networking Area. You can’t get more straightforward or uneuphemistic than that.
‐Near the media center is a sign — a large poster: “Free Alan Johnston, BBC News correspondent, abducted on 12 March in Gaza.”
‐King Abdullah gives the opening address, and he stresses the need to find a solution for the Palestinian people. Conditions are desperately bad in the PA, he says, and these conditions “create radicalization.” He has spearheaded the “Arab Peace Initiative,” in which virtually all the governments in the region call for a two-state solution. He also talks about the need to “prepare for the day after peace” — too little thought has been given to that, he says.
Maybe so, but the achievement of peace seems difficult enough.
More broadly, Abdullah speaks about the general stagnation of the Arab world: Some 325 million people live here, but standards of living are deplorable. He notes that, in very recent memory, China and India were in a similar position: and they made “tough decisions to move forward,” opening their economies, accepting globalization. Why can’t Arabs do the same, and even better? He further notes that, of the 325 million Arabs, over 200 million are under the age of 24 — a shocking and portentous fact. If they are denied opportunity, what are they going to do with their lives, besides emigrate, despair, or lash out?
The king’s address has not been platitude-free (hell, my columns aren’t platitude-free). But there is enough substance to chew on for a long while.
‐He and Rania cap the opening day with a soirée under a huge, white, royal tent — a tent that must be the best air-conditioned in the world. Throughout dinner, there is entertainment, and the entertainment peaks with dessert: Lionel Richie. Their Majesties are fans, apparently, as are we all. The crowd exults when he appears, and that includes the young Jordanian sitting next to me. He quips, “I wonder if he brought his daughter.” (That would be Paris Hilton pal Nicole Richie.) And he gets on his cell, saying, “I’ve got to call everyone I know!”
Lionel sings “Easy (Like Sunday Morning),” “Stuck on You,” “Say You, Say Me” — all the wonderful songs, and he does so wonderfully. He has not lost a step, or a note: He is musical, fresh, smooth, and oh so personable. He says — in what must be regular shtick — “At first I thought you were a sedate, dignified crowd. But now I know better — I have the temperature of the room. This is the ‘Dancing on the Ceiling,’ ‘All Night Long’ crowd!” Whoops and hollers. And, as the evening continues, much dancing, swaying, and singing along.
I myself feel a surge of nostalgia and warmth. Lionel is the bomb. (And he is a damn good talker at Davos, too — smart, interesting, cool.)
Well, that’s enough for Installment I, don’t you think? I’ll be back in coming days with Afghan president Karzai, Iranian foreign minister Mottaki, Royal Jordanian stewardesses, and much more.