Politics & Policy

Dead Sea Journal, Part II

Welcome to Part II of this journal — these scribbles from the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, held next to the Dead Sea in Jordan. Lovely weather we’re having here, for this low, low point on earth. To catch up on Part I of the journal, go here. Now . . . where were we?

As at most international conferences, there’s a lot of “globaloney” spoken here. That is Clare Boothe Luce’s immortal coinage. The words can go by narcotizingly: “root causes,” “paradigms,” zzzz. But there is much that is fresh and arresting said, too. I will get to some of that in a moment. And some promising work is done as well.

Take the formation of the Israeli-Palestinian Business Council. I’ll quote a bit of the relevant press release:

The World Economic Forum today announced the launch of the Israeli-Palestinian Business Council by a key group of Palestinian and Israeli CEOs. The council, consisting of some of the foremost business leaders in Israel and Palestine, will advance the relationship between the two business communities and, ultimately, assist the region to move towards durable peace and coexistence.

The private sector in both societies is an important stakeholder in the wider context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, enjoying leverage and credibility among their respective communities. This new group will energize the two vital economic players towards an agenda that promotes reason and dialogue to help advance reconstruction and economic revitalization of the region’s economies. The Business Council will constitute a platform to enable the two business communities to work together, under the umbrella of the Forum, to devise a strategy for more cooperation and bilateral intervention on the issues affecting the respective agenda of the two peoples on both the social and economic fronts.

Might be a pipedream, though I doubt it. One thing’s sure: Can’t hurt.

‐Pause for a little language: Did you notice, in that press release, that the writer wrote “affecting the respective agenda of the two peoples”? (Emphasis added, obviously.) Did he/she mean for “agenda” to be plural (making “agendum” the singular, I suppose)? Or was it just a typo?

The only person I ever heard use “agenda” as a plural was the late Senator Moynihan. Discussing Social Security, he said, “Let’s not have hidden agenda.”

Okay, Pat.

‐And now for something fresh and arresting: There’s a lot of talk about education at this conference, and some of it comes from Khaldoon Al Mubarak, co-chairman of the Forum, and CEO and managing director of the Mubadala Development Company in the UAE. I will give you a taste of his remarks, in paraphrase:

“The education system needs to be diversified, in part because the present system is not meeting the needs of the private sector — a sector that is growing, and will grow all the more. Businesses need young people who are equipped for new and vital tasks. In addition, our textbooks are an outrage: In math, for example, fourth-graders read, ‘If you have five Muslims facing four infidels . . .’ What is such a question doing in a fourth-grade math textbook? Textbooks, curricula, teachers — all need to be confronted. Moreover, the exclusion of girls from our schools is a great weakness of the system.

“Now, governments can’t make needed changes all by themselves — they need help from private organizations and individuals. We must take the initiative. We can’t sit on the sidelines, waiting for government to direct us. A number of schools have already been privatized, and many more need to be. We must have more innovation, more imagination, more flexibility. We will never keep up with the world, or catch up to it, if our schools are inferior.”

Etc. Frankly, friends, Mr. Khaldoon Al Mubarak, in his flowing robes and headdress, sounds like Bill Bennett, Lynne Cheney, and other Reaganauts in the 1980s.

Later, another participant (I forget which one) will say that many Arab schools are particularly good at turning out public-sector functionaries. But these jobs are full to overflowing. The private sector has its own needs, and businesses should work with schools to draft meaningful curricula. If businesses need the workers, shouldn’t they have a say in what is taught?

And, again: Cut the nonsense about Muslims and infidels . . .

‐A man who rejoices in the name of R. Seshasayee has something especially interesting to say about “diversity.” And this is a theme of this conference, of Davos in the Desert 2007: diversity, though not in the awful American sense, which is racial. More like diversification, mixing things up, economically, politically, and socially. Seshasayee says he feels abundantly qualified to speak about diversity, because he comes from India — where they have 130 languages and over 10,000 dialects. “I can’t speak the language 100 kilometers from my hometown.”

Discussing economics in the world at large, he says that, wherever entrepreneurship has “found expression,” opportunity has flourished. “A market economy has both managed and promoted diversity.” People are normally moderate, he says — that is their default position, or natural position: moderation. Only in dire circumstances do they become extremists.

He has much wisdom to impart, R. Seshasayee. And, by the way, that is how he is known, in every document I can find: “R. Seshasayee.” I can only imagine that that first name is a mouthful. More letters than Seshasayee? (NB: Seshasayee has the same number of letters as “Nordlinger.”)

‐Another subject of frequent conversation: meritocracy. The Middle East needs it, and does not now have it. Such seems to be the consensus of the conference. Like Khaldoon Al Mubarak, Saeed Al Muntafiq is a co-chairman of the Forum, and from the UAE. He longs for a system where “what you can do determines what you get — not what your name is, not what family you come from.” This seems radical stuff.

This gentleman also says that, because of nepotism, stratification, and exclusion, “we Arabs are lacking behind” — a perfect mistake of language, perfectly illustrating a major problem.

‐Linda Rottenberg, an American who is CEO of Global Endeavor, says, “We must do more to promote failure.” Huh? It is a dead-serious comment, and a crucial one. The Middle East sorely needs entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship involves failure. But the traditional culture of the Middle East, being shame/honor, is not so high on failure. Rottenberg says, “In Silicon Valley, failure is a badge of experience.” You fall on your face a couple of times — or eight times — and eventually you get it right. But will the Middle East allow for such a process?

Later in the conference, a local exec will say, “The Arab businessman is an excellent businessman, one of the finest in the world. But he is allergic to any kind of failure,” and this makes entrepreneurship problematic. (Did not quite catch the name of this speaker, so sorry.) Failure must not be seen as a shame, or a stain; it should be seen as a learning experience, and a prelude to success.

Actually, all of us, from anywhere, could do with more of that kind of attitude.

‐I encounter many government officials and businessmen who say that a “welfare-state mindset” must be overcome. (I am quoting one highly placed Arab official: “welfare-state mindset.”) A dependency on the state, a kind of existential helplessness, is an ongoing problem. Arab reformers are determined that people will no longer receive something for nothing: An effort of some kind must be expected of the individual. “No more freebies,” as this aforementioned official says.

And how will liberalizers be accepted by people who have long been accustomed to a different way of thinking and living? The smartest answer: By results. By practical, measurable successes in the economic and other arenas. If you lift up the poor through more liberal policies, extremism will lose its appeal, and so will apathy and cynicism.

‐I hear something interesting from a German friend of mine. He has attended a session dealing with women, and their progress in the Middle East. One panelist is asked what inspires women in her country. My friend thinks she has answered, “Opera.” “Oh, that’s interesting,” he thinks. “Yes, I suppose Handel and Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, are very inspiring.”

And then he realizes: The panelist has said, “Oprah.” Ah!

‐You may remember that, two years ago in this journal, I wrote of the stewardesses for the Royal Jordanian Airlines. They are again about the conference center, serving as ushers, in a way. They look smashing in their red skirts, red jackets, and smart black hats — right out of Catch Me If You Can, that Leonardo DiCaprio movie, about the guy mixed up with Eastern Airlines (and lots of other things).

It’s not that each and every Royal Jordanian stewardess is a stark-raving beauty (although many are). (By the way, these are stewardesses, I submit, as distinct from flight attendants.) But each is . . . I don’t know. A woman. Feminine.

Is that evil to say? I’m sure it is, but I’m not going back — barreling toward the conclusion of Part II.

‐They have green-apple juice here, and it is heavenly, a nectar. Why don’t we have this everywhere else? (Or have I just been blind?) Also, the cookies in the Arab world are extraordinarily good. Makes me want to turn against those adorable Keebler elves (or whatever they are).

‐As before, I look across the Dead Sea to the Israeli side. Wouldn’t it be something to have a Middle East conference in Israel? Yeah. And wouldn’t it be something if ice cream made you as thin as celery? On either side of the sea, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Hills, cliffs, gardens, birds, the water itself. When the sun sets, it looks like a cartoon sunset — just dropping over the horizon. A truly lovely, even sensual, part of the world.

Not even the stubborn foulness of man can quite negate it.

Okay, guys, that’s enough for one installment — see you tomorrow (I believe) with Karzai, the Iranian FM, and maybe even a speck of Jimmy Carter.

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