Better uses for the Gulf's oil millions

February 25, 2007|By Uri Dromi

Being stranded in an airport because of bad weather or some other reason can be a most annoying experience. The only bright side of it is the opportunity to browse through the magazines in the bookstores (except those sealed in plastic) and quickly learn about what the rest of the world is doing. Because honestly, how many of us would otherwise pick up a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review and read, or even look at, important articles like "In Praise of the Incomplete Leader."

I, for one, always take advantage of this freebie of instant learning. For example, I never get tired of admiring what the Americans, according to their magazines, are doing with their lives: yachting, body-building, self-improving and gardening - lots of gardening. However, as an Israeli, I am probably cursed with this addiction to Middle Eastern affairs, so the last time I waited for my flight at JFK Airport, I found myself reading about Abu Dhabi.

Turns out that next month, this sheikdom is hosting the 17th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. In an interview with the magazine of the old Frankfurt Book Fair, Jumaa al-Qubaisits, the director of this young Gulf fair, says that as a "capital of a very cosmopolitan country, Abu Dhabi welcomes male and female visitors from around the globe. The city prides itself on its egalitarian society."

Do I smell petrol here? Wait, there is more. From The New York Times and other newspapers I learn that four of the world's most renowned architects - Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando and Zaha Hadid - have been commissioned to design for Abu Dhabi a huge cultural center. Mr. Gehry is in charge of building in that sheikdom the world's largest Guggenheim museum, with approximately 130,000 square feet of exhibition space. According to TradeArabia News Service, Sheik Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, boasted that the aim is "to create a cultural asset for the world. A gateway and beacon for cultural experience and exchange."

Now, I'm not the kind of person who would tell other people what to do with their money. Yet I know what I would do if I were the sheik ruling Abu Dhabi (it's an Israeli tradition to bemoan the fact that when leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses, instead of turning right, to where the oil was, turned left).

If I were the sheik, before establishing a "beacon for cultural experience," I would rather take some steps toward creating a civic society, with basic elements like free press, the rule of law and true equality for women.

The recent Arab Human Development Report, published annually by the United Nations Development Program, reveals deep-seated discrimination against women across the Arab Middle East: Maternal mortality rates are unacceptably high, women suffer more from overall ill health than men and half of all women are illiterate compared with one-third of men.

"Arab countries stand to reap extraordinary benefits from giving men and women equal opportunities to acquire and utilize knowledge," says the report, which, by the way, was not compiled by patronizing Westerners but rather by Arab experts.

Furthermore, if I were Sheik Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, I would invest some of my billions of petro-dollars in assisting my fellow Arabs, the Palestinians. I would initiate an emergency "Marshall Plan" to try to save Gaza, which is quickly falling into the abyss of civil war and despair. Not to mention the Palestinian refugees, scattered in camps all over the Middle East.

Gulf money could have changed the lives of these people by settling them permanently in their countries of residence or in the future Palestinian state. Israel would surely join in such a venture, both out of its moral obligation and out of sheer interest in settling its feud with the Palestinians and the other Arabs.

When all this happens, then all of us - Sunni Muslims and Jewish Israelis - when not busy defending ourselves against our mutual enemy, Shiite Iran, should all be traveling happily together, in our Mercedeses, to marvel at the artistic treasures of Abu Dhabi.

Uri Dromi is director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. His e-mail is dromi@idi.org.il. This article originally appeared in the Miami Herald.

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