In an era of increased suspicion of the Middle East’s rising economic power and aggressive sovereign wealth funds, a delegation of top Arab business professionals from the Middle East and the United States gathered in New York last weekend to quell those fears and present the future face of the region.
By putting its best and brightest on stage, the Young Arab Leaders (YAL) organisation hopes to continue its efforts to build a bridge between Arabs and the rest of the world through dialogue and programmes.
Kicking off the Global Action Forum in New York, Dr Omar bin Sulaiman, Governor of the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and Chairman of the Board of Young Arab Leaders, encouraged Arab and American delegates to build bridges between individuals, cultures and societies through frank dialogue.
“Dialogue among ourselves and dialogue with other cultures and societies represents the steel we must use to build our bridges,” Dr Sulaiman said.
As the governor of the DIFC, and one of the main backers of economic free-zones in Dubai, Dr Sulaiman is the type of leader who demands results, and he called on young Arab leaders to deliver on their promises.
The organisation is a non-profit entity of 500 private and public sector leaders from 22 Middle East countries, with the commendable and challenging goal of develop the region’s young people and enabling them to play a productive role in global society through leadership, entrepreneurship, and outreach initiatives.
Dr Sulaiman said young Arab leaders face significant challenges in their mission and must maintain diligence to succeed. He said the onus is on those Arabs who have great wealth and opportunities to lift the rest of the region suffering from unemployment and inertia.
“Contemplate the poverty in which so many people are trapped and imagine the global violence that poverty will inspire. Give some thought to what we as individuals have been fortunate enough to achieve with education, with drive and with a desire for achievement that overcomes frustration,” Dr Sulaiman said.
“If you think we can rest, count the number of challenges each of our countries face, the number of young people we are charged to inspire to productivity, the number of forces – natural and otherwise – working against our will to succeed. Count up those numbers, and you will see no possibility of rest and no incentive to do so,” he added.
Another UAE national, Shehab Gargash, the Chair of this year’s Young Arab Leaders Global Action Forum and Managing Director of Dubai-based Daman Investments, challenged the delegates to “reach out to more young people in more ways, more often, with more solutions, and more encouragement for them to find pride in their accomplishments”.
This focus on mentoring the Arab youth was a recurring theme throughout the conference. The demographic boom in the Middle East is a phenomenon that has gained the attention of academics and governments all over the world. Estimates vary, but in most Middle Eastern countries more than 65 per cent of the population is under the age of 25.
“The audience here at this forum understands the mission and embraces it. The audience demands our attention, deserves our commitment and needs our respect. If we falter in fulfiling them with any of those needs, we risk a devastating danger that threatens the entire world. When we succeed in nurturing young Arabs with care, guidance and confidence, we will present them, and the rest of the world, a treasure beyond material worth – multiple opportunities to make productive choices, not destructive ones,” Gargash said.
Agreeing with Dr Sulaiman’s call to action, and in clear homage to the mission of the organisation, Gargash said the organisation is the “vanguard of the new generation for young Arabs”. As leaders, it is imperative to deliver the “other half of the audience” who could not attend the forum in New York, Gargash said. “They are the Arabs who lack the opportunity, confidence, privilege, skills and training.” He said that group must be touched and nurtured. “We are here to cut through the underbrush of ignorance and poverty, of intolerance and despair and deliver a very real promise of a better society to our children.”
There are few who would argue with the rationale behind the aspirations and goals, but few doubt the organisation’s ability to realise its ambitious vision, which was so visible in the audience during the panel discussions.
The young Arab entrepreneurs were aware of the simple fact that most new businesses and organisations fail within four years. James Zogby, founder and President of the Arab American Institute, said the biggest challenge people face in a new project is inertia, and he believes that the only way to overcome the inevitable slowdown is to run the nonprofit as a business – with quantifiable goals that can be measured and reassessed.
But unlike many other Arab groups working towards similar goals, the fact that the organisation has been successful in its short life is a refreshing development, and one that undoubtedly attracted the powerful Americans to the dialogue in New York.
Among the attendees were the former United States Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell; Mike Gambrell, Executive Vice-President, The Dow Chemical Company, a major supporter of several YAL programmes; Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, US Director of Inter-Religious Affairs, American Jewish Committee; Keith Reinhard, President of Business for Diplomatic Action; Richard Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations; John Zogby, President, Zogby International; and James Gorman, Co-President of Morgan Stanley. Over the past couple of years, YAL has sponsored a series of programmes – some in co-operation with the private sector and NGO communities – that worked to bring young Arabs together with young people from America and other countries in business, academic, and day-to-day-life environments, and the organisation has implemented scholarship programmes, hands-on training programmes, and professional exchange fellowships. These achievements are only some of the tangibles.
A number YAL members and delegates at the forum related similar stories about meetings with executives from top global corporations and investment firms who have become very interested in the business and growth story of the Middle East – a shift from the political and security related questions that dominated the dialogue in the past.
According to Dr Sulaiman, this shift in perception and understanding is a direct result of the proactive fostering of relationships through talk and co-operation.
As the Chairman of YAL and its biggest cheerleader, Dr Sulaiman believes that dialogue is just the beginning, but he also highlighted some of the major achievements of the YAL and the Global Action Forum since the first meeting in 2006.
After the previous forum, “a new model of co-operation and development emerged in five key areas: education, entrepreneurship, leadership, dialogue exchange, and youth networks,” Dr Sulaiman said.
He went on to say that the plan was not just talk but yielded “specific and practical results”, which has led to the launch of three new initiatives last week in New York – the Global Action Institute, the Arab American Fellowship Programme, and the Innovation and Entrepreneurship programme. Dr Sulaiman said the Young Arab Leaders partnered with the Dow Chemical Company in forming the Global Action Institute (GAI), which “will develop, encourage and promote an extended Arab and American dialogue”.
The GAI will facilitate relationships between the Middle East and the rest of the world, serving as a “catalysts for visibility and action-based initiatives in leadership, entrepreneurship, and education”, Dr Sulaiman said. The institute will work with other NGO in the US, and will promote knowledge exchanges between the US and the Arab world, an effort that will be difficult given the heightened security measures in the US, which is denying many visa applicants from the Middle East.
In order to achieve this, Dr Sulaiman said the GAI “will concentrate its programmes on non-political issues”.
65%: Of the population in most Middle Eastern countries is under the age of 25
500: Leaders are part of the non-profit organisation
Young Arab leaders work to build bridges