Arab Intellectuals at Abu Dhabi Conference on Future of the Arab World See Strength in Unity
"So you are going to a conference which will discuss the future of the Arab world," remembered my Arab-Canadian friend Tahar when I said I was traveling to Abu Dhabi to cover a three-day Symposium on the Future of the Arab World and the Role of the Arab League. "Who told you that the Arabs had a future?"
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 early November 1997 to lay plans for the coming 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.
Sheikh Zayed set the conference's central theme in the opening speech, read on his behalf by his son, Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The UAE president said that divisions among the Arabs were a source of strength to their enemies which have led to the degradation of the sacred Islamic shrines in Palestine and the humiliation of the people in the occupied territories. In Sheikh Zayed's 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. Urging that the Arabs learn from their losses and discard their differences, Sheikh Zayed encouraged Arab intellectuals and thinkers to diagnose Arab ills, then come up with solutions to enable the Arab countries to take a future role among the other world nations worthy of their illustrious past.
His call to forgiveness, harmony and entente among Arabs formed the main focus of the symposium. Held from Nov. 2 to 4 in Abu Dhabi's Intercontinental Hotel under the chairmanship of Sheikh Sultan, the forum tackled economic blocs, advanced technologies and needed changes in the Arab countries.
It was no surprise that 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 Aug. 8, 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.
For three days, the brains of the Arab nations, with a sprinkling of sympathizers from the Western world, contrasted the solidarity of purpose of the Arabs with 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 prelude to an Arab common market, economic and social development in the region, the Arab-Israeli peace process, future relations with neighboring states and superpowers, and the resurgence of Arab culture and civilization -- the symposium waded into the practical problems facing the Arab world.
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. Senior British statesman David Steel urged the European Union to develop a common Middle Eastern policy to offset American influence in the region. He warned that the Arabs were angry and frustrated by the failure of the European states to take a greater role in this part of the world.
Dr. Naseef Hitti, professor of international relations at the American University in Cairo, said in his paper that the Arab world in the 1990s is characterized by four phenomena, namely: the globalization of pan-Arab relations, the de-Arabization of those relations, increased trends toward regionalism, and an increasing tendency toward regional disintegration. …