I am writing this blog post from Abu Dhabi, where I have been attending the 2012 Abu Dhabi Media Summit
Whenever I am in the Gulf region, or indeed in Istanbul, I always feel somehow more centred – literally at the historical epicentre of global trade, the silk routes of centuries past, touched by generations of commercial endeavour. This is a history that serves as a great reminder that, just as ‘man’ walked out of the plains of Africa (not Europe), so mathematics was born in Mesopotamia (not Massachusetts) , and that the concept of family trust is something that has forever bound together Arab peoples, while occasionally dividing them in spectacular fashion also.
One of yesterday’s speakers was the mesmerising HRH Princess Rym Ali of Jordan, who referenced the late Professor Edward Said and his 1978 masterpiece, ‘Orientalism’. Said wrote that: ‘my contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness….as a cultural apparatus. Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge’. Just as I did, it is certainly worth scurrying to Wikipedia to find out more – and to come to terms with Orientalism as a piece of cultural aggression, borne out of either ignorance and/ or fearful defensiveness. This is a region whose history is dis-figured by the intrusion of foreign powers, dating back to the secret treaties of the early twentieth century and before. Orientalism belongs in a colonial past.
The wider point is that the Middle East is itself a misnomer. It is only the ‘middle’ to those who look to it from the west (or indeed the east, but the west holds historical responsibility). In a globalized, hyper-connected world, no market should appear ‘middle’ to another, just as there can be no cultural supremacy of East over West, or vice versa. Geographic agnosticism is essential, especially in global business. Consider also that the Arab world has the fastest growing group of Milennials of any region on the planet; they see fewer borders. Arabic is the fastest growing language on the internet, which itself crashes through false geographic barriers also. And, as another conference speaker observed, shared interests abound: even fighters on either side of the divide in Syria today can find points of shared interests and passions. Just not on politics. Such is the way of the social world.
Opening the conference, Bill Gates called for more ‘strategic philanthropy’. He was followed by a string of speakers who immersed themselves in a society that is increasingly mobile, super-connected, multi-screened and socially-aware. A guest from the US State Department, Alec Ross, admitted that they had given up on ‘control-freakery’ long ago and embraced empowerment instead. With the day two focus on entrepreneurship and innovation in the region, it served as a wake-up call that today’s UAE (and countries beyond) is as much an active generator of creativity and intellectual firepower, as a passive consumer of the same. It needs to be recognized as such.
The push for enterprise was delivered elegantly by Aramex’s Fadi Ghandour who contextualized it with an impassioned call for an energy and focus on one of the key issues of our time. While the West looks to the shocking statistic of 50%+ youth unemployment in Spain and the de-urbanization of Detroit, the Arab world still has countries where the youth unemployment figure touches 40%. Youth empowerment through job-creation is an urgent necessity, while the silent connection is the one between a generation of the unemployed and disconnected and inevitable social and political turbulence. According to the latest figures from the IMF, the private sector needs to create between 50 million -75 million jobs over the next 10 years in the Arab world. An Economic Spring is the first imperative.
These are of course problems shared. They are not unique to any region. Global businesses must learn accordingly. Cultural sensitivities need to be sharpened, with elements of the Orientalist quickly eradicated. This will require movement towards a new framework of cultural understanding and collaboration and greater transparency, too. But then this is the way the world is moving, as the future-watchers are happy to tell us. There is no ‘f’ word in the next generation, as one commentator said – Milennials do not do ‘failure’ – and shared interests can bridge historical divides.
Just as cultural aggression needs to be stamped out, so cultural transparency – true to citizen values – will enrich us all. Crowd-based collaborations, working across borders, will boost innovation and understanding in equal measure, and lessen the distrust that too often flows from west to east. Collaborative working erodes prejudice, while a new cultural empathy will avoid the creation of false hierarchies between nations that dis-respect truer networks, populated by real people.
It strikes me that we still have so much to learn from the region formerly known as the Middle East. As the world unites, so the victims of ‘bad diplomacy’ can and should become the champions of good diplomacy. The destructive tensions of yesterday can morph into the creative tensions of tomorrow – and address some of huge challenges that face one world, not one, singular region. And the ancestral home of Deep Science and Deep Humanity – maths and trust – can become a beacon for a better and richer way of being.