You are going to a conference which will discuss the future of the Arab world? Who told you that the Arabs had a future.'?', my Arab-Canadian friend, Tahar, asked in a pessimistic manner when I informed him that I was travelling to Abu Dhabi to cover a three-day symposium on the Future of the Arab World and the Role of the Arab League. Like a great number of immigrants to North America and perhaps the majority of the educated in the Arab world, he had a negative attitude when it came to Arabs and their future.
Yet, in spite of this cynical perspective, the United Arab Emirates, under the sponsorship of its President, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, held a conference in November 1997 to lay plans for the 21st century. Some 250 experts, politicians, scholars, thinkers and writers from the Middle East and a number of Western countries discussed the prospects of the Arab world and the role that the Arab League should play in its future evolvement.
The conference's central theme was set by Sheikh Zayed. In the opening speech read on his behalf by his son, Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, he said that the divisions between the Arabs were a source of strength to their enemies and these divergences have allowed for the degradation of the sacred Islamic shrines in Palestine and the humiliation of the people in the occupied territories. In his words: 'It is time to mend fences, forgive each other, and leave the door open for all Arabs to return to the Arab ranks.'
He advocated serious dialogue plus a spirit of fraternity and tolerance, not isolation and fanaticism. Sheikh Zayed went on to say that the Arabs should learn from losses endured and work to discard differences. He urged Arab intellectuals and thinkers to diagnose Arab ills and crises, then come up with a solution which would enable the Arab countries to take a future role among the other world nations. His call to forgive and reach harmony and entente between Arabs formed the main focus of the symposium.
Held in Abu Dhabi's Intercontinental Hotel under the chairmanship of Sheikh Sultan, the forum tackled economic blocks, advanced technologies and necessary changes in the Arab countries. Above all, the conference symbolized one of the several calls made by Sheikh Zayed to realize solidarity amongst the Arabs and work to lay a foundation for the future.
A few years back the Lebanese weekly, Al Hawadith, reported that Sheikh Zayed had declared: 'Since the outbreak of Arab rifts I could not sleep a single night.' On 8 August, 1997, Zayed told the Arabic daily, Al Hayat, that the Arabs must work hard to lift the embargo on the Iraqi people, stressing that the Arab League should upgrade its institutions and perform its duties more actively. (This was before the recent crisis between Washington and Iraq.)
For three days, the brains of the Arab nations with a sprinkling of sympathizers from the Western world, debated the solidarity of the Arabs and their failure to achieve integration and unity. Tackling the most urgent matters facing the Arab world such as inter-Arab disputes, the setting up of an Arab Free Trade Zone as the road towards an Arab common market, issues relating to future economic and social development in the region, the Arab-Israeli peace process, the future relations with neighbouring states and superpowers and the resurgence of Arab culture and civilization, the symposium delved into the urgent problems facing the Arab world.
From among the many participants who gave papers and those who took part in the discussions, Sheikh Hasher Al Maktoum, Director of Dubai Information, called for the creation of an Arab news agency, emphasizing Arab/Islamic values, within the Arab League. A senior British statesman, David Steel, the former Leader of the Liberal Party, urged the European Union to develop a common Middle Eastern policy to counterbalance American influence in the region. Lord …