Perspectives from the Middle East
By Steven F. Hall '85
Having been involved with the Middle East the whole of my adult life, I can say that it has been a truly amazing journey. This odyssey began for me by traveling to the Eastern Mediterranean on an interim trip with professor Fred Tonsing, a three-week journey that literally changed my life. The purpose of the Cal Lu interim was to expose students to ideas and experiences outside the regular curriculum and to widen their perspectives on life and approach to it.
The thirst for knowledge of the rest of the world I developed as an undergrad at Cal Lu has continued for me to this day. Through the course of my career I have been fortunate enough to have experiences all over the world but it is the Middle East which has played the largest part of my experience.
The Middle East has a rich history and culture, often misunderstood in the West. Arabs, while sharing a common language, history and for the most part religion, are as different culturally from one another as are the nations of the English-speaking world. While we share language, and in a vague sense religion, with Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, the British and others, no one would argue that the cultures of these countries are identical.
The same is true of Arabs: there is rich diversity and divergence of culture and even language between Moroccans, Saudis, Palestinians, Emiratis, etc. It has been said that Brits and Americans are two peoples divided by a common language. This is even truer of Arabs. They no more share a monolithic culture than we of the English-speaking world do.
A Troubled World
9/11 truly changed the world. Nothing following this shocking event will be viewed in the same way as before. This criminal act, perpetrated by a small group of extremists against the wishes of the vast majority of people, East and West, has colored the world we live in since.
The opportunity to truly engage with the Middle East, and the Muslim world in general, to achieve common understanding among reasonable people with a view to a positive future for all of humanity is one to which I would hope all rational people could aspire. A global war on 'terror' — an amorphous concept of a perpetual ideological struggle — cannot be won through the use of force alone.
Afghanistan and Iraq have been invaded; forced democratization projects have been launched in Iraq and Palestine all without the desired outcome. Should we regard any of these projects as successful? It is hard to see positive results in any of these endeavors. In Afghanistan, a fragile central government exists in Kabul while the Taliban is resurgent.
In the case of Iraq and Palestine, elections were held in both countries under foreign occupation, hardly ideal circumstances for democracy to flourish. The outcome of both elections did for the most part represent the popular will of the people while producing results inimical to the interests of the United States.
That Hamas won a landslide election in Palestine, generally regarded to be free and fair by international observers, was a result abhorrent to the United States and Israel although both could have easily foreseen this result. The Palestinian Authority, bloated and corrupt, acting more with self preservation in mind and bound by agreement to give priority to the interests of Israel and the United States than to Palestinian state building, stood little chance of electoral success. In Iraq, the majority voice, long suppressed by successive Iraqi governments, made its voice heard without regard to America's decidedly hopeful vision of a placid, multicultural post-war environment.
There is more bad news: As I write, Lebanon is in crisis, Iraq's troubles escalate while Syria and Iran in particular are under threat of serious actions against them. Dialogue is virtually non-existent.
Road to Security
The elephant in the room in the Middle East is a just solution to the Palestine problem. Everyone in the region knows what the resolution is: two states that will provide a secure future for the citizens of Israel and independence and dignity for the Palestinian people. Despite knowing this, the political will to achieve this end is decidedly lacking. The two parties, left to themselves, have achieved nothing after 60 years and numerous wars along the way.
A weakened Israeli government, a split administration in the West Bank and Gaza, an increase of settlement building, and the rapid construction of settlers-only roads and 'separation' walls in the occupied territories, daily make a solution less rather than more likely. Gaza is under siege and only crude rockets find a means of escape towards Israeli population centers. The only consistent dialogue between the parties is the language of violence. Yet the solution is manifest: the greatest guarantee of Israel's future is in the guarantee of the Palestinians' future.
I had the opportunity to see President Bush speak at the World Economic Forum in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, at the end of May. He had just arrived from Israel where he had helped celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary. In what one Arab newspaper editorial described as 'two shocking speeches in a week' in Jerusalem and Sharm El Sheikh, the president managed to avoid dealing in any meaningful way with the other side of the coin of Israel's independence celebrations — the 'Nakba' or catastrophe, of the Palestinians' 60 years of loss and dislocation. Bush didn't meet the Palestinians in Palestine, but in Egypt. He referred vaguely to the need for a Palestinian homeland without any tangible plan for moving this agenda forward.
America in a post 9/11 environment has, from where I sit, lost much of its credibility and moral authority with the Arabs and the wider world. This need not be a permanent condition. America, as well as Europe and the rest of the world, will need to lend not only moral authority to this end but genuine pressure, influence and insistence on the parties to achieve a resolution to this issue, the largest remaining open wound of the 20th century. Israelis, Palestinians and the people of the Middle East in general deserve and need our help to attain a better future for themselves and their descendants.
Fortunately, there is much good news from the Middle East as well. I now live in Dubai, the most dynamic economic hub of the Middle East and one of the great success stories of the region and the world. A city-state with no real natural resources (the oil and gas fields of Dubai were depleted years ago), the local government, looking to the future, has managed to diversify the economy through business opportunities, investment and tourism. Thus, the Emirate is growing at an incredible rate.
With a population of 1.5 million people made up of more than 200 nationalities, a very diverse and entirely new culture is being created along the way. It is a vision of what the 'new' Middle East might actually look like. That this vast array of nationalities gets along for the most part while building for the future is remarkable to behold. Mosques, churches, temples are freely accessible; new universities are being built daily; all manner of food, music and culture abound. (Happily for me as a Southern Californian, Mexican food is widely available, and some of the best fresh tortillas I've eaten are produced in the Emirate of Ajman, 30 miles from Dubai.)
There are numerous golf courses (several designed as lifestyle communities by Tiger Woods and Greg Norman), race tracks, sports stadiums, bars, restaurants, clubs, libraries, museums, concert venues and art galleries - all within the context of Persian Gulf society. Tolerance and openness make it a success. Qatar, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and other areas in the Gulf are opening up and thriving culturally and economically. One hundred percent freehold property is available to foreigners in Dubai and the concept is spreading to other parts of the region. This allows those of us who are resident here to be stakeholders in this area's future.
The climate for business is characterized by decent regulation, transparency and commitment to best practice. While the rest of the world may be dipping into recession, the Gulf is growing and developing with great confidence and huge liquidity. Much of the recent oil windfall is being poured into infrastructure projects around the Gulf and as an investment in future generations here by way of education and financial planning for a non-oil future.
These are indeed exciting times to be in the Middle East. People here are tired of war and near non-stop crises persisting for generations. The greatest impediment to a prosperous Middle East is the absence of genuine peace. To paraphrase one Gulf business leader in his speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF), as he sees it in 20 years time, Tel Aviv could be a regional hub where the only thought required in traveling there and around the region, from the Levant to the Persian Gulf and to Iran, could be how to engage in and enhance commerce, business and the exchange of human capital more effectively.
I regard it as a great privilege to be witness to as well as participant in life in the Middle East both personally and professionally. I feel proud and honored to be able to play even a small part in impacting on and experiencing life in this dynamic region.