'A spirit of cooperation'
"We want to bring the spirit of Davos to the Middle East," World Economic Forum (WEF) President Klaus Schwab told Reda Helal* in an exclusive interview ahead of the upcoming extraordinary meeting of the WEF in Amman, Jordan
Is the WEF's Amman meeting a part of the new Middle East peace process?
When we embarked on this Global Reconciliation Summit about two months ago, we invited leaders from politics, business, and civil society to create a platform for peace and development in the Middle East. We never imagined when we were planning our summit that it would become part of the current peace process. Following the meetings with the Arab leaders and President Bush in Sharm El-Sheikh, and with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Abu Mazen, in the Jordanian port of Al-Aqaba, the World Economic Forum is aiming to add momentum to the peace process.
The recent upsurge of violence in the Middle East is, of course, discouraging for those who want to replace conflict with dialogue, but the World Economic Forum's Global Reconciliation Summit in Jordan will play its part in keeping that dialogue going.
Arabs think that the Amman meeting will be a repeat of the MENA economic conferences, which have failed in the past. Is it true?
The MENA conferences came at a specific time to answer a specific need. This Global Reconciliation meeting is taking place at a unique time in unique conditions; it is an attempt to bring together all sides for a broad and wide-ranging dialogue.
We will discuss nation building in Iraq, the roadmap for peace and the possibility of economic and social reform for Arab nations. For this reason, this Summit of Reconciliation should not be confused with the MENA conferences. Its scope is broader and more ambitious.
Violence occurred after the meetings between President Bush, Arab leaders and the Israeli prime minister. Do you think that the Amman meeting will have tangible results?
The issues of war, terror and fundamentalism have to be resolved if we realistically want to establish a spirit of cooperation. There is always a struggle between negative and positive forces, and the positive forces can only prevail if there is a strong commitment to concentrate on constructive and not on destructive action.
The recent outbreak of violence in the region makes the summit more vital than ever. I believe that if the conditions are right, conflict can be replaced with cooperation. The first fundamental step to ending uncertainty and stagnation is dialogue. With all the setbacks and the fragility of the situation we must remain optimistic that dialogue will resolve the problems of the region -- for the sole reason that there is no other viable alternative solution.
The meeting is to be held under the heading, "Visions for a Shared Future". Why did you choose this theme?
Because we believe that only through cooperation and dialogue will we rebuild and develop the region. It is not for the World Economic Forum to produce a blueprint, but rather to enable leaders who come to our meeting -- whether from business, politics or civil society -- to propose, discuss and develop a new vision for the future, not just of the Middle East, but for the rest of the world as well.
Will there be focus on Iraq or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict during the summit ?
This is a Summit for Reconciliation. It will deal with problems facing the whole region, not just the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the problems facing Iraq, but also the need for economic and social reform in many of the countries across the region.
What will lead the Middle East through change: democracy in Iraq or peace in Palestine?
Both. For there to be economic and social progress in these countries we absolutely need peace and democracy.
The idea -- to set up the Summit of Reconciliation in Jordan was born [at the last annual meeting of the World Economic Forum] in Davos in late January. Today, after the war in Iraq, it is essential to boost economic development, as well as economic and social progress in the region. Without a fast improvement of the economic conditions, we will have no political stability. Thus, the first objective is to define policies and reforms, which will create jobs and economic welfare.
The second objective is to reduce the tension in the region, and that means the roadmap for peace in the Middle East will play a major role.
What post-Iraq fallout can be expected in the Middle East and beyond?
We are living in a historic time, full of danger, but full of opportunity too. The end of the war in Iraq has given all those who believe in peaceful dialogue a moment to reflect, and a moment to think how we can work together to improve the world through economic and social action.
The aftermath of the Iraq war will continue to reverberate across the world, we hope that our Summit of Reconciliation will mean that there will be positive outcome.
You launched the Council of 100 Leaders in an effort to promote dialogue between the West and the Islamic World. What has been the outcome?
The Council of 100 is a very exciting project, a way of improving dialogue between the various worlds of the West and Islam. But it is still in its very early stages. The Council will bring together leaders and thinkers from all faiths, enumerate the problems and put forward ways in which we can encourage dialogue.
In Jordan, we hope to determine the membership of the Council and work on a blueprint for the next few years. Above all we will study the misconceptions and stereotypes and highlight the reality of the misunderstandings, in order to build trust and cooperation between the two worlds.
Through these common strands and core values we hope build economic and institutional ties that will further aid understanding.
What obstacles endanger that dialogue?
There are always those in the world who oppose peaceful dialogue, but I believe that our arguments are stronger. The real threat to the region's stability is economic, political and social stagnation. It is in conditions like this that extremism flourishes and dialogue is endangered.
In your opinion, what kind of role will Egypt play in the peace process and in the new era of change in the Middle East?
Egypt has a long and proud tradition within the peace process. It has been intimately involved in attempting to bring a comprehensive settlement to the region. In the most recent moves to peace, with regard to the road map, it has already hosted the meeting between Arab leaders and President Bush at Sharm El-Sheikh. It has shown its willingness to contribute to dialogue, and peace in the Middle East and it will continue to be central to any process of dialogue between Arabs and Israelis.
* Reda Helal is assistant chief editor of Al-Ahram.