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Reform-minded Arab business leaders take on governance, religion, education

Arab Business Council tackles challenges during annual meeting in bahrain

Nobody ever said that reforming the Arab world would be easy, or that it would be smooth sailing to make the political, educational, economic, and administrative changes that would allow the next generation of young Arabs to compete and prosper in the global economy.

The leading pan-Arab grouping of activist senior business people, the Arab Business Council (ABC), came face-to-face with those challenges this week at their annual meeting here in Bahrain. The ABC's core discussions of the technical transformations needed to spur sluggish and antiquated economies and make them more competitive repeatedly veered into talk of politics, terror, religion and youth.

In a fitting symbol of the parameters of its substantive discussions of the political, economic, nationalistic, and religious dimensions of Arab societies, the gathering found itself framed chronologically between the ongoing violence of young French men of Arab origin and the terror attacks against three hotels in Amman, Jordan.

These complexities, however, seemed only to stimulate and whet the appetite of this unusual group of Arab businessmen to accomplish their mission in fields beyond their usual purview of making money through private enterprise. ABC President Shafiq Gabr of Egypt described the mission as being a catalyst for change and lobbying for effective policies on the pan-Arab challenges of unemployment, political participation and democratization, education, human development, corruption, as well as peace and stability.

The two-day gathering of 180 senior business, government, media and academic leaders included the usual range of panel discussions and presentations on technical issues, including benefits and burdens of free trade agreements with the U.S., the role of the mass media, and the impact of national competitiveness councils being set up in half a dozen Arab states.

The new element this year - just the third year of the ABC's existence, after it was launched under the aegis of the Geneva- and Davos-based World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2003 - was the strong focus on three related issues: the mindset and education of young Arabs, who make up a majority of the population; the route to transforming paternalistic Arab political orders into more democratic and accountable governance systems; and the crucial role of religion, whether the roles of religious leaders and political mass movements, or the actions of small groups of terrorists who have used the language and symbols of Islam.

Judging from this gathering's focus and tone, the broad reform wave that continues to lap at the shores of the Arab world has fully grasped two important points: political, economic, and education reform must happen simultaneously, not sequentially, and, religious sentiments that are expressed through peaceful political movements must be engaged through democratic politics, rather than violence or denial.

In a closing communique that reflected the gathering's concern about extremist and some violent trends among Arab youth, the ABC called on Arab governments to make the fate of the 180 million young people in the region their top priority.

"The most urgent issue is reform of education systems to provide young people with the skills required by modern economies," the ABC stressed. "If equipped with these skills, young people can be the driving force of an Arab economic resurgence that will create jobs to sustain growth in future generations."

ABC members called on the business community to work with educational authorities to improve curricula, develop better vocational and technical training, encourage entrepreneurship, and help young Arabs shape their identity and values.

The ABC also issued a range of recommendations that mirror and expand exhortations of previous meetings. These included suggestions that Arab governments increase transparency, accountability and the rule of law in public institutions, with budgeting and public procurement as priorities; steps should be taken to develop an independent, commercially strong Arab media (an ABC-WEF Arab Media Initiative will focus on developing an honest and effective ratings system to help create a robust media market); all those genuinely committed to a democratic process should be included in the political system, and at the same time moderate Islamic leaders should engage extremists in religious debate; more Arab governments should recognize the value of measuring competitiveness as a tool for boosting accountability and transparency, and support the development of National Competitiveness Councils; and, Arab governments and the private sector should enhance regional integration through trade liberalization and not rely on bilateral trade arrangements.

"The key is clearly youth and education," said Ged Davis, managing director of the WEF's Center for Strategic Insight. "To unlock the great potential of Arab youth requires competitive economies in the region. What underpins competitiveness is the transparency and accountability of institutions, a vibrant media, a liberal trade regime and a modern education system that prepares students appropriately and ensures they have the right skills. These are the priorities for Arab countries - for both government and business in the region."

Gabr added: "Arab governments should realize that the existing education systems don't work. I would like to see in the next 24 months a true revolution in the whole Arab education system."

Gabr underscored the need for Arab countries to eliminate illiteracy, calling for "unconventional reforms that allow us to leapfrog conventional changes and make up for the lost decades of Arab development."

More information on the gathering and the final communique can be found on the WEF Web site (www.weforum.org).

The participants started talking about the role of religion in society from the opening session, where they were given the findings of a new public opinion poll on religious dimensions of education, unemployment and the rule of law in Arab countries. The poll, by the leading American group Zogby International, asked citizens in six Arab countries across the Middle East for their views on education, business and the importance of Sharia law.

A majority of citizens polled in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) said Sharia law should be applied to businesses, although they agreed that further interpretation is needed to allow businesses in the Muslim world to integrate into the global economy.

Citizens differed substantially on whether they would trust a popularly elected Islamic government to abide by the rules of a democracy. Asked whether they would trust an elected Islamic government to follow these rules, 72 percent of Saudis and 70 percent of those in the U.A.E. said yes, while just 36 percent of those in Lebanon agreed. Christians in Lebanon were most skeptical - just one in five said they believe an Islamic government would abide by the laws of a democracy.

The WEF's Middle East director, Sherif al-Diwany, said: "Education, rule of law and employment are all key issues for the future development and integration of the Arab world in the global economy."

The survey also found a striking split between various Arab states on the quality of the education systems in their home countries. Egyptians are particularly skeptical that their education system is working. Just 15 percent said they believe their current system prepares young people for successful careers in today's global economy. In Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., 56 percent of polled residents believe their systems are working properly.

A majority of respondents in most nations, except Lebanon and Jordan, called for applying Islamic Sharia law to business operations. In Lebanon, the majority overwhelmingly rejected this view while, in Jordan, it was the position of a plurality.

Majorities or pluralities in every nation also expressed the opinion that Sharia law requires further interpretation to allow businesses in the Muslim world to integrate into the global economy. This was a majority view in most states, while a 40 percent plurality of Egyptians and a 43 percent plurality of Jordanians also favored further interpretation of Sharia.

Beirut,11 14 2005
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