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Putting a price on US-Arab misconceptions

Putting a price on US-Arab misconceptions

Perceptions of Middle East in the western business world remain confused and contradictory. Yet the lack of understanding goes both ways and cost millions of dollars a year.

March 15, 2010 6:12 by

Shafik Gabr is on a mission. Gabr, chairman of the ARTOC Group for Investment and Development, wants to improve relations between East and West by educating Americans about the Arab world.
He is offended that too many Americans lump all Muslim countries together, not distinguishing between those that support diplomatic relations with Israel and women’s rights and those that don’t.

Gabr has gone to great effort to broaden the United States’ Muslim world-view, most recently co-sponsoring the Arab Global Forum in Washington six months after President Obama’s address in Cairo.

The investment is not entirely altruistic. In his opening remarks at the December conference, Gabr said that the cost of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East since the 1993 Oslo agreement was $13 trillion in foregone growth and direct costs – a staggering penalty to pay for diplomatic failure, and indicative of the wasted opportunities for Arab commerce.

The purpose of the inaugural meeting of business and political leaders from East and West was to develop “actionable initiatives” that could improve ties between the U.S. and the Arab world. It grew out of frustration that Obama’s speech to the Muslim community had opened the door, but that there had been scant progress in the intervening six months.

Claude Smadja, head of the eponymous consulting company that co-hosted the Forum, said in his opening remarks: “We don’t want Obama’s speech to be lost into the sand.” That 28 would-be participants – high level Arab political and business leaders – could not obtain visas to attend the forum said it all.

There was, indeed, a sense of letdown from the euphoric expectations created by Obama’s Cairo address. Georgetown University’s Michael Hudson declared the “magic” gone, and said the Arab press was decidedly souring. The decision to send more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan was a blow to Arab optimism, as was the administration’s backtracking on increasing Israeli settlements.

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