Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 April 2003
Issue No. 632
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Them and us

Arab Americans are being drawn back into the Arab fold with plans for the first US-Arab Economic Forum, writes Nyier Abdou

Late last year, the Arab League unveiled its plans for what will be the first large-scale cooperation between the Arab League and major Arab American institutions: an economic forum designed along the lines of the yearly Davos gathering that will create links between economic heavyweights and policy decision-makers in the Arab world and the Arab American community. The forum -- originally slated for May of this year, but recently postponed to September due to the explosive political situation in the Middle East -- is set to be held in the Arab American stronghold of Detroit, Michigan.

Organised in cooperation with leading Arab American groups in the US, such as the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) and the Arab American Institute, the conference is as much about inter-Arab politics as it is about bridging the economic and cultural divide. Billed as the first concrete step to establish fruitful economic and commercial ties between the US and the Arab world and empower the Arab American community, the forum is really an exploratory family reunion -- a rapprochement between the old world and the new.

Nasser Beydoun, executive director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn, Michigan, says that the forum will hopefully "begin the process that builds understanding, tolerance and cooperation" between the Arab world and the US. "We all believe that dialogue is the only way to achieve openness and trust," he said.

"It's cooperation between us and them," agrees Hisham Badr, head of the Arab League secretary general's office. Though such a partnership has long been sought and slotted into the new vision laid out for the Arab League by Secretary-General Amr Moussa, Badr stressed that what is being achieved with the new forum throws out outdated ideas of cooperation based on an idealistic yet ultimately vague sense of kinship. "This conference is about pragmatism," he says. "It's to shift that relationship, which is full of stereotypes, from the 'romantic' ... into a practical, pragmatic institutional relationship. How can we, the Arab world, and you, as Arab Americans, put our act together and work together?"

Though Badr made it clear that the conference is about tangible working relationships, the goals of the event are certainly ambitious: to tighten economic ties, to nourish the relationship between Arab Americans and the Arab world, to tap into the $55 billion in two-way trade. Tackling Arab issues on economic cooperation, human development and IT and media, the forum is subsuming far more than business deals, and organisers are not shy about using big names like American anchorman Peter Jennings and talk show host Oprah Winfrey to absorb media attention.

"When you have a session with Oprah Winfrey and Queen Rania [of Jordan], for example, and [wife of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri] Bahiya Hariri -- that's it. That's a media killer," says Badr.

The relationship between Arab Americans and the Arab world has been a confused one, but after 11 September, this tenuous connection has grown in importance. Whether a recent immigrant, or many generations old, Americans of Arab descent are increasingly lumped together in the American consciousness. Even if they are more comfortable thinking of themselves as ordinary Americans, the rest of America is not. "I do believe that the Arab world is starting to examine its relationship with the Arab American community in a more positive way," says Hassan Jaber, associate executive director of ACCESS, the single largest Arab American organisation, with an estimated 300,000 members. "The flip side of it is the fact that Arab Americans now see a strategic connection between the welfare and prosperity of Arab Americans and the welfare and stability of the Arab World."

"At the beginning of the 21st century, there's a wave of attacks to blemish the Arab identity with one of violence, with one of aggression," says Badr. "And if this goes unchecked, then we will be in for a very hard time for the rest of the century." He argued, however, that Arabs have a chance to seize this moment and feed a growing hunger for knowledge about Islam and Arab culture in the West. "If ... we fill the gap, and we define the agenda, then I think we can change the course of history."

"The important trend, I think, is that most Arab Americans now are increasingly seeing themselves more as Americans -- as part of the American fabric," says Badr. "But they have to move, they have to do a lot to work on the American scene, to move from a single voter, or a single-issue constituency, into a real, multi-issue constituency. You cannot say that you are an American, and an Arab American, and you only get involved when issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict are raised on [Capitol] Hill -- you can't do that."

Redefining the image of the Arab within Western culture is a lofty goal, but Badr maintains that the upcoming forum is a way to speak to Americans on terms they best understand: money. "It's a business conference," he says, aimed at showing Americans that economic relations with the Arab world are a "strategic relationship" for the US.

"Even before the tragedy of 11 September, dialogue between the US and the Arab world was at best artificial and inconsistent, and in the main lacking or nonexistent," says ACCESS's Jaber. Suggesting that 11 September was an "indirect result" of the lack of communication and understanding between the US and the Arab world, Jaber highlighted the need for more interaction and education within both cultures.

"When you [Americans] think of the Arab world, don't think of the 5 per cent of things you think about every day -- the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraq issue -- think of the hundreds of billions, even trillions of dollars of Arab investments in the US," demands Badr. Pointing to strategic partnerships the US has with countries in the Gulf and the significant economic partnerships the US has with Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia, Badr said that one thing the Arab league hopes to achieve through the forum is "highlight the positive" so that Arabs are not branded with the "stigma" of a negative image in the American consciousness.

Beleaguered by reports calling for the democratisation of the Arab world and aggressive reform, Badr is not willing to take the condescension quietly. "We want to give a message: listen, the Arab world is seized with reform -- cares about reform. We don't need anyone to shove it down our throats."

Badr stresses the enormous potential of some 70,000 NGOs working in the Arab world, saying that the Arab League and other Arab groups must find a way to "harness" that energy for what he calls "Arab collective work". In turn, he warns that Arab Americans need to toughen up their political savvy. Talking about a meeting between leading Arab American organisations and the 22 foreign ministers of the Arab League, Badr notes that an exchange that was expected to run under an hour lasted for five hours.

Arab American leaders were furious with the way Arab League members failed to engage the Arab American community. Sounding like jilted lovers, they argued that they are sidelined when Arab leaders visit Washington -- you never call, you never write. "They blamed us," says Badr, pointing to the lavish attention given Jewish Americans when an Israeli prime minister goes to the US. "[Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon -- before he goes to Washington, he goes to New York, he goes to Florida, he goes to California," says Badr. "They have big dinners for him, he meets the leaders of Jewish [organisations] -- and then he goes with them to Washington."

"We have a problem in the Arab world," says Badr. "Our message is not getting across to the United States. The best and first line of defence is Arab Americans. ... The best thing that Arabs can do -- the best investment that we can do at this stage on the American scene -- is to invest in Arab Americans. Not simply 'Ah, you're Arabs and we're Arabs, we have to cooperate' -- no. How can we work together? How can we do it?"

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