Tuesday, October 31, 2006

John Burgess on NCUSAR

The National Council on US-Arab Relations is currently hosting a conference in Washington and John Burgess is blogging the event. NCUSAR (not to be confused with the CAIR which more often makes the news) appears to be a solid assembly of movers and shakers at the intersection of business and international relations. These people are not "grass-roots." These are the people who groom the grass.

This first report is worth reading.

The first session addressed Taking Stock of the Saudi Arabian-US Relations, with Abdallah A. Alireza, Minister of State of the Saudi Council of Ministers taking the lead. He focused on Saudi Arabia's needed to develop intellectual capital and how the new King Abdullah University for Science & Technology is intended to do just that...

Alireza also noted, with dismay, that US imports into the KSA had declined 13% over the last year and blamed it on the extraordinary difficulty Saudi businessmen have in getting visas to visit the US and make deals...

Three panelists then spoke: Ambassador Robert Jordan (for whom I worked 2001-2003) presented a "balance sheet" on the relationship...

Dr. Khalil Al-Khalil, Member of the Majlis Al-Shoura and Professor at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Univ. spoke next about educational reform in the Kingdom...

Dr. Eleanor Abdella Doumato spoke next on "Teaching Islam"...

The final panelist was Dr. Bandar Al-Aidan, who basically reprised the history of US-Saudi relations. Of particular note, though, was his comment that Saudi Arabia not only had cooperative programs with the US concerning Soviet expansion in the Gulf region, but also in Europe.

I was particularly interested to see this by Ambassador Jordan:

Among other issues, he noted that the war against terror and, more recently, concerns about a nuclear Iran have drawn the US and Saudi Arabia closer together. It seems that this issue is even starting to pull the KSA and Israel together, though whether or not that can be parlayed into something wider remains to be seen.

Because the Arab-Israel conflict has historical roots that are literally biblical, we are tempted to believe that it is as much a part of the landscape as the rivers, mountains and deserts. It is hard to imagine any kind of alliance between these two sides. It seems that events in Iran, with reverberations in Iraq some have called "controlled chaos" may be inspiring both sides to examine their differences in a different light.

Take a look at this...

The same Jewish group who gave food assistance to underprivileged Jews during Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot is now turning to help an unlikely crowd: underprivileged Muslims who will celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan next week with the holiday of Eid Al-Fiter.

On Tuesday, 150 members of the Jewish Reform Movement, in cooperation with the "Kavod Foundation" gathered in Jerusalem to assist with the packing of canned goods and other provisions to be delivered during the holiday to needy Muslims in East Jerusalem.

Hat tip to Aziz Poonawalla for the link. He also links to another story with a similar thrust.

A group of American Muslims is using compassion to counter the violent reactions of fellow Muslims who were angered by Pope Benedict XVI's controversial remarks about Islam. The Florida office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said Thursday (Sept. 21) that it will deliver $5,000 in seed money to help repair six churches in the Palestinian Territories that were damaged by Muslims who were infuriated by the pope's speech.

"We're still waiting for a detailed report from the Catholic Near East Welfare Association to find out the full cost of the damage," said CAIR-Tampa Executive Director Ahmed Bedier, announcing the campaign with Catholic officials in St. Petersburg, Fla. "But the response has been received well."

The Rev. Robert Gibbons, vicar general for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, is accepting the donation on behalf of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a New York church agency that offers humanitarian and pastoral support to churches in the Middle East and around the world.

These stories fail to feed the high-profile ugliness that so excites the passions of both Left- and Right-leaning advocates of deepening conflict, but they indicate that reasonable, peaceful alternatives to mistrust and hard-line thinking are not altogether dead.

Followup, November 2

John Burgess' wrapup report was more general but also worth a look. After what had been a substance-filled series of events, the ending was something of a disappointment.

...the conference was very worthwhile. The final hurdle, though, was missed…

The notional keynote speaker was Nasser bin Hamad bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa, Ambassador of Qatar to the US and Mexico. He really didn't have much to say, though he did provide a few instances of pro-forma insult-tossing against Saudi Arabia...

Al-Khalifa was followed by Lt. Gen. (Ret.) David Bambo, currently of the National Defense University, who seemed to misgauge his audience. His address was light on substance, unfortunately. I was reminded of speeches given by military officers to local Chambers of Commerce or Rotary Clubs, where no one will challenge or interrupt the speaker out of deference to his position. Lots of platitudes and broad generalities; no real information. I'm sure he'll do better next time.

What really tarnished the program for me, though, was the de facto keynote speaker, former Amb. W. Charles (Chas) Freeman. Freeman seems to have slipped into "Bush Derangement Syndrome". From the dais, he essentially stated the Bush Administration had singlehandedly undone years of progress in the Middle East. Rather than discuss mistakes that had been made—and there assuredly have been many serious ones—he appeared satisfied to impute dishonorable motives to Bush and his Cabinet. I don't actually recall all that much progress in the region over the past quarter century, particularly when it comes to the promotion of representative governments, transparency, rule of law, independent judiciary, reduction of extremism, or peace. For some in the audience, mostly Arabs of various backgrounds, this was "red meat to the lions". Perhaps he felt it necessary to "fire up the base" on the eve of American elections. Perhaps he truly believes it. This, though, is the kind of uncritical pandering to all causes Arab that served to marginalize former Amb. Richard Curtiss, his "American Educational Trust", and its Washington Report on Middle East Affairs with its overtones of Antisemitism. And this is a great pity, because Freeman once knew better as he ably represented the US during Desert Shield/Desert Storm in Riyadh.

I'm disappointed, too, that Dr. Anthony, host of the conference, felt the need to offer his support in the manner he did. He opened the question period with his own inflammatory remark: "In 1948, the United States had no enemies in the Middle East" and now it has many. I am hard-pressed to figure out what friends in the Middle East the US had in 1948. The Bey of Tunis? King Farouq? The French in Algeria? Perhaps the Trucial States under the dominion of the United Kingdom? Anthony is usually better than this. I hope he can return to a more serious critique in the future.

This is why I read John Burgess. He's nobody's patsy.

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