“All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort, a sustained effort, to find common ground.”
So said Barack Obama during a much-heralded speech to the Arab world in 2009, shortly after his inauguration as US president. While the speech, made in Cairo’s Al Azhar University, was largely welcomed at the time, you’d be hard-pushed to find many in the Middle East who believe that the president’s actions have lived up to his rhetoric since that time.
Last week, Arabian Business was afforded the opportunity of a rare local interview with Wadah Khanfar, who is regarded as something of a sage in media circles. Having made the split with Al Jazeera – a move that he says was done on his own terms, the former director general has since been busy spending his time setting up the Al Sharq Forum – a Doha-based non-profit organisation that he believes could well be the Middle East’s answer to Davos.
It’s immediately clear that Khanfar has been thinking about some pretty high-level issues. Perhaps top of the agenda is something that he has termed as a ‘Marshall Plan’ - a reference to the US-funded scheme that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War - for the Arab Spring countries.
“When I call for this idea, I am not calling for something that is idealistic – I am calling for something that is pragmatic and realistic,” he told me.
But how would such an idea work? Khanfar proposes that three parties – the Gulf Cooperation Council, Europe and the US – join together to create a fund that would kickstart the economies of those Arab Spring countries – Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya - that have passed the revolution stage and are now transitioning towards democracy.
Such a scheme would of course have its detractors. If we have learnt anything about the American electorate during the Republican primaries this year, it’s that less overseas funding not more – especially to the Middle East – is the flavour of the month. In Europe, the idea of shelling out yet more euros in foreign aid when finances are desperately needed to shore up indebted economies will also be a tough sell. Only in the Gulf, which has the funds and the political will to help its neighbours, would such an idea be immediately worthy of consideration.
Yet Khanfar is convinced that the plan is still the right way to go. In Arab eyes, the US has lurched from belligerence to disinterest over the course of the last decade or so. Promises made by Obama to prevent continued settlement-building in Palestine – which he alluded to in the Cairo speech – have been completely stonewalled by the current Israeli administration. And Arabs are also unlikely to forget initial American support last year for long-term allies such as Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“That being said, I think the Americans have a chance of enhancing their image in the region if they actually support these new economies,” Khanfar said. “This is why I believe that a partnership between America, Europe and the Gulf states in rebuilding these countries would be most welcome, and very much appreciated by the public as a contribution towards stabilising the region.”
The benefits, he thinks, are obvious. As America tries to balance the rise of what he terms ‘the Eastern bloc’ - Russia and China - it will be in need of strong friends. A stable North Africa is also vital if Europe wants to strangle the flood of refugees washing up on its shores. And the Gulf stands to benefit from the rest of the Arab world’s impressive human resources.
It may be early days, but surely Khanfar’s plan is worth a shot?
Ed Attwood is the Editor of Arabian Business.