JEF Diary Day 1: Pleasant Surprises All
By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on February 25, 26,27, 2008
Day 1 at the Jeddah Economic Forum was full of surprises, and they were all pleasant ones. The first surprise was the venue itself. Most of the previous eight forums were held at the Jeddah Hilton. This time, the forum moved to the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s International Conference Center on Madinah Road, where usually exhibitions are held. Many were skeptical about the change of venue, as the Hilton offers a variety of world-class amenities. The chamber reportedly spent millions on the center and gave it a complete new look. A lot of jaws dropped when people entered the beautiful and wonderfully decorated center which is much more spacious than what the Hilton offers. People who attended previous forums noticed the difference, and everybody appreciated the excellent renovations.
Speaking to JCCI officials on the sidelines of the forum, it was revealed that this investment would put the chamber in good stead for years to come. The Hilton represented a hefty annual expense; whatever money was spent on the center’s revamp will result in lower costs in the future. Although no one would go on record as to the cost of the renovations, sources confirmed that SR10 million had been spent.
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The second surprise of the day was the speech by Bosnian President Dr. Haris Silajdzic that was delivered in Arabic. Silajdzic is both a politician and an academic as well as an Arabic language expert. His speech was delivered with the proficiency of an expert storyteller, with pauses for reflection. Saudi leaders in attendance listened to him with their undivided attention.
He said the example of Bosnia contradicted the concept of the clash of civilizations, noting that despite the turmoil of war, the nation remains a society of tolerance. The Bosnian president talked about the siege of Sarajevo, which spanned four years — the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. More than 12,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded during the siege. Eighty-five percent of the casualties were civilians.
“The Muslims in Bosnia — about 50 percent of the population — proved to be a very civilized element,” said Silajdzic. “They were tested during the war. They did not create concentration camps. They did not commit genocide — they could. They are indeed the most constructive citizens of Europe.” The Arabic address dissolved all differences between the forum delegates. Saudis are proud people, and when someone speaks to them in their own language, their affinity for that person has no limits. At the end of the session, Silajdzic was mobbed by an appreciative audience and received profuse thanks for his thought-provoking address.
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There were a lot of lighter moments during the first session. When Prince Turki Al-Faisal mentioned Saudi Arabia’s response to disasters worldwide — noting that the Kingdom provided aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina — the crowd laughed when he quipped that the Saudi aid arrived to the victims before the American government was able to respond to its own citizens. “Many people don’t know that the Kingdom contributes more per capita in foreign aid than any other country in the world,” Prince Turki said.
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Attendees also had a hearty laugh when a Jeddah-based American expatriate, Rabia Hershey, asked panelists how individual foreign workers could contribute to the Kingdom’s development through the application of their knowledge and skills. She told them she had been in Saudi Arabia for 26 years and wanted to contribute to improving young Saudis’ communication skills but she couldn’t accomplish much because the local population uses the city’s training centers, which are out to fleece them. “I challenge you to answer that,” said Rabia.
In response, Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad said all individuals should contribute. Silajdzic agreed with her and said there is no way you can prevent people from helping to develop society. By the time Prince Turki’s turn came, the moderator, British ITN newsreader Alastair Stewart, said to him: “Your Royal Highness, we are running out of time, can you answer this lady briefly?”
“I will be very brief,” said the prince. “Whenever I am challenged by a lady, I surrender.”
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Prince Turki broached the topic of the Danish cartoon controversy. “Printing those cartoons initially was reprehensible,” he said. “Reprinting them was inexcusable.” He also said the Kingdom was committed to making a difference in the Middle East. “Saudi Arabia’s goal is also to promote peace and stability in our region,” he said. “The Roman poet Horace once wrote: ‘It is your concern when your neighbor’s wall is on fire.’ Right now, our neighbors’ walls are ablaze. Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Palestine all require immediate attention. In each of these countries, the Kingdom is doing what it can to bring parties together, open up dialogues, and offer solutions for peace and progress.”
JEF Diary Day 2: Microcredit Mogul’s Day
“Rock star” is how one well-known Saudi editor described Nobel Prize-winning father of microcredit Professor Muhammad Yunus after his scintillating, straight-from-the-heart address at the Jeddah Economic Forum yesterday. The directness and simplicity with which “the world’s banker to the poor” delivered his speech left the crowded Jeddah International Conference and Exhibition Center spellbound.
His words are covered in great detail in one of this newspaper’s reports, but the audience also was taken with the professor’s charisma. They simply adored him, clinging to his every word. Most of the women clapped incessantly while some whistled wildly.
“The biggest resistance to my microcredit project came from men,” he said, much to the jubilation of the women in attendance. “I was empowering women, and they didn’t like that.”
He was not speaking from a written script, as was the norm at almost all sessions, but he crafted the finest speech of the day. “I call the poor people the ‘bonsai people,’” he said. “The bonsai grows tallest in the forest because it gets the soil it needs to grow. Take a bonsai seed and plant it in an ordinary pot and it will grow only up to a certain height. There is nothing wrong with the seed. The problem is in the soil and the pot — it doesn’t get the soil and the room to grow taller. Similar is the case with the poor people, society’s have-nots. They are talented like any of us, but they don’t get the opportunity to succeed. At Grameen Bank, we provided these poor people the opportunity to succeed, and they did in a remarkable way.”
Yunus said poverty was systemic. “It is the system, so the system has to be changed,” he said. “Poverty should be relegated to a museum. Every city and every country should decide when to put poverty in a museum and once that date is decided stick to it. It is possible, and the phenomenon of microcredit has proved that beyond any reasonable doubt.”
The concept of his Grameen Bank has gone worldwide, including Latin America and the United States. It earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. Moderator Alastair Stewart noted many an eye had welled with tears by the end of the speech, and he received a standing ovation at his conclusion. He had won over nearly every person in the audience, and they mobbed him at the end of the session as press cameras flashed and cell-phone cameras snapped photos of forum participants standing with Yunus.
“I was floored by his directness and simplicity. He is so down to earth,” said Lina Chehab El Alaili of Lebanon’s Union Bancaire Privee. “Earlier in the day, I heard Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board. He spoke well, no doubt. But those were all cold statistics... Greenspan was basically talking about the business of the rich, and here was Professor Yunus... talking about the business of the poor. Both are economists. The major difference is Professor Yunus’ economics makes a difference in the lives of millions of people.”
While Yunus received a round of thunderous applause, three proud Bangladeshis at the far end of the hall laughed and cried at the same time. Mukhlis Mian of Dhaka, Muhammad Munir of Comilla and Jashimuddin of Sylhet said they were at the forum because their company, Almajal Servicemaster, had brought them there for maintenance work. All of them wore their company’s uniform. “We were overwhelmed by the greatness of one of our countrymen,” one of the Bangladeshi nationals said. “Look, how every Saudi, men and women, were clapping and listening to him with rapt attention. He is a great man. We are seeing him for the first time in flesh and blood.”
The three said the professor’s presence in Saudi Arabia comes at the most critical time in the lives of the 1.7 million Bangladeshi expatriates in the Kingdom.
“There are all these reports appearing in the local press about our iqamas not being renewed and about recruitment of Bangladeshis being stopped and of our compatriots being in the news for all the wrong reasons,” said one of the young Bangladeshis. “There are websites that are running a campaign against us. Professor Yunus’ presence here will go a long way in improving the image of Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia. All the top Saudi business leaders are here and after listening to Professor Yunus they will definitely have a soft corner for all of us. When they think of Bangladeshis, the Saudis will now definitely think of Professor Yunus.”
For the three workmen, the professor's presence was enough. “We don’t know what he spoke about,” said one of the workmen. “We don’t know English. We only saw the entire hall clapping intermittently and we saw that everybody stood at the end for quite a long time. Did you see anybody doing that when other speakers ended their speeches?” “Rock star” seems an extremely appropriate description for the microcredit mogul.
JEF Diary Day 3: Minister’s Musings
If Monday belonged to Bangladeshi microcredit mogul Professor Muhammad Yunus, then Tuesday certainly was Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi’s day. He is a scholar and a poet — and the labor minister, too. He kept the audience glued to their seats until the very end and in splits throughout the session with his sometimes satirical, sometimes cryptic and sometimes funny quotes. When CNN’s John Defterios, who was moderating the morning session, introduced him, Al-Gosaibi was not on stage. He took quite some time to emerge on the podium. “The floor is all yours,” said Defterios, when Al-Gosaibi appeared after quite a pregnant pause. “But you didn’t introduce me,” said Al-Gosaibi. “Yes I did, Mr. Minister,” Defterios replied. “Well then, how come I didn’t hear the applause?” said Al-Gosaibi, prompting a good round of applause from the audience.
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This question keeps cropping up at every forum. Should the local speakers speak in Arabic or English? If they choose to speak in English, then they invite the ire of the puritans. Al-Gosaibi was confronted with the same question yesterday. “Your Arabic language skills are legendary,” one Saudi participant said. “You are a litterateur, and it is a treat to listen to you. So we would have loved to hear you in Arabic, especially since you were in such a jovial mood today.”
That gave Al-Gosaibi the perfect opportunity to win over the non-Arabic speaking audience. “I asked the organizers as to what language I should speak in. I was told that there were simultaneous translations available to all. And so when I found out that we have a large group of honorable and eminent guests from outside, I thought it was part of our hospitality to speak to them in their language. Jeddah is known for its legendary hospitality. It is especially welcoming to foreigners. It embraces everybody. Jeddah provides a shade to all newcomers,” Al-Gosaibi said, drawing another round of thunderous applause.
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With his tongue firmly in his cheek, Al-Gosaibi said he took what he called a “grand total” of seven courses in economics. “Four of them were in Cairo, two in California and one in London. In Cairo, I learned what the government wanted me to learn. In California, I learned what the professors wanted me to learn. In London, every time I tried to learn one principle of economics, the teacher would come and tell me ‘but on the other hand.’ So if you want to learn anything about economics, don’t go to London!”
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Al-Gosaibi reveled in a little self-deprecating humor. “A lot of people believe that Saudi ministers know nothing,” he said. “Where did these ministers come from?” He spoke about the three schools that dish out ministers. “One was the railroad organization. There have been five directors general of the railroad organization who went on to become Cabinet ministers. Incidentally, I was one of them. The second school was the University of Southern California. For some strange reason, it was considered as the training ground because it was found that eight graduates of USC became Cabinet ministers. Others believed that the Shoura Council was the training ground because seven of its members had become Cabinet ministers. Now, for your information, the railroad organization is being privatized, and USC is no longer in vogue. So your only chance now is the Shoura Council.” John Defterios, the moderator, immediately quipped: “It is very sad to hear that USC is out of fashion. I missed the Cabinet call!”
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Being the labor minister is tough. “I will never get the Nobel for popularity. Although I am working very hard for an Oscar,” Al-Gosaibi said, receiving a hearty laugh from women in attendance.
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Speaking of training, Al-Gosaibi said: “If somebody tells you that the government can run a successful training program on its own, don’t believe it. On the other hand, if somebody tells you that the private sector can on its own come up with a successful program, don’t believe them, either. The government doesn’t have the talent, and the private sector doesn’t want to spend the money.”
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Al-Gosaibi said everyday he looks for Aladdin’s lamp. “Should I get one, and if the genie appears, I will ask for two wishes. My first wish will be to have 100 businessmen like Muhammad Jameel, the chief of ALJ Co. He has single-handedly provided thousands of jobs to Saudi youngsters.” He paused and then said: “You want to know my second wish, don’t you? Take this ministry away from me.” It brought down the house.