VISION 2010: U.S. & ARAB ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES
U.S.-ARAB ECONOMIC FORUM
SEPTEMBER 29, 2003
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Thank you for those nice words, Mr. Chairman.
It's an honor for me to be here this morning. This is the perfect place to host a meeting on the future of the Middle East. The leadership of Arab-Americans in this community - and in the state of Michigan - has been nothing short of dazzling, and I want to thank you for hosting us here this week.
A great deal of time will be spent at the conference this week focusing on the problems of the Arab world. I want to kick things off here today instead by asking you to imagine the possibilities…to imagine what the Gulf region would be like if Arab countries were at the forefront of the global economy…to imagine what the world would be like if Arab nations were the world's leading force for enlightenment and inclusion…to imagine what the future would be like for a Middle East rooted not in conflict, but anchored in partnership.
Two years ago, less than two weeks after the tragedy of September 11th, I gave a speech in Minnesota in which I said it didn't take much to imagine that kind of world because we have seen that world before. All it takes is for us to think back to another time, to a civilization that was once considered the greatest in the world.
It was a civilization that was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of different creeds and ethnic origins. One of its languages became the universal language of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands.
And this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention. Its writers created thousands of stories. Its poets wrote of love, when others before them were too steeped in fear to think of such things. When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive.
While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, as I said to the audience that day in Minnesota, the civilization I'm talking about, of course, was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent - rulers who challenged our notions of self and truth; who contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership; whose leadership led to 800 years of invention and prosperity.
As we meet to think about the civilization that exists on that same land today, I ask you to imagine for a moment what a leader like Suleiman would say if he could somehow be here today, and see what the world has become.
I think he would be pleased at how much the world has learned from the example of the open, cooperative society that enlightened the world all those years ago. The Islamic example has helped create a world where democracy and transparency and rule of law are empowering people and taking them to new heights.
But I think he would also ask why there is so little cooperation in the land that taught the world what it knows about cooperation. Why is so much closed in a land that taught the world what it means to have an open society? Why do we have 22 separate Arab nations with their own rules and systems and barriers, when the rest of the world took its example and created prosperous trading blocs?
I think he would look at the inventions of this world and say that humanity has done much with the knowledge the Islamic world gave it - from Arab architects who designed buildings that helped make today's cities possible; to Arab mathematicians who created the algebra and algorithms that made the invention of computers possible.
I think he would also ask why isn't there as much knowledge today in the land that taught the world what it knows about knowledge? Why, at a time when literacy is the path to success in the information age, are 65 million adult Arabs still illiterate? Why, at a time when information technology is helping create opportunity, is only one half of one percent of the Arab world online - a rate lower than sub-Saharan Africa?
I think he would be pleased at how inclusive this world has become, and say that humanity has learned much from the diversity of the Islamic world - a world that was based on meritocracy, not inheritance.
But I think he would also ask why does this land that taught the world so much of what it knows about inclusion, still virtually exclude half of its population? Why aren't women, who make up more than half of the university population in the Arab world, equal to work, equal to start businesses, and equal to contribute to the peace, prosperity, and advancement of the Arab world? Why, when the Arab world has such an incredible asset in the midst, would it choose to leave that asset on the shelf?
I refuse to believe that the Arab world was more enlightened 500 years ago than it is today. We don't need Suleiman to ask these questions.
Last year, a group of Arab scholars asked the same questions. I think the reason we have come to Detroit this week is because we all know it's not too late to do something about it. There is a spirit of invention and innovation and creativity in Arab nations that led the world in the past, and can lead to an even more prosperous future.
Of course we must be realistic about the problems, and the barriers to the progress. But we must also be optimistic about the potential to overcome these barriers, for without optimism, no progress is possible.
This past June, I had the honor of participating in the World Economic Forum's mid-year meeting in Jordan. After one of the panel discussions, I saw a security guard standing off to the side. He was Egyptian, and I asked him what he thought of the proceedings. He said, "We talk a lot about politics here, and rightly so. But if we're going to bring the kind of change we need, it's not about politics, it's got to be about economics."
Surely the reason we are all here is because we know that creating new, sustainable prosperity in the Middle East isn't just a political challenge, it is also an economic challenge, an education challenge, and a diversity challenge.
First and foremost, the economic question in the Middle East is a demographic question. In half a century, the population there has quadrupled, and could increase by nearly 100 million over the next decade. While the population is expected to grow at five percent, economic growth is projected to remain at three percent. Unlike other regions of the world that trade with each other to create growth, like Europe, where two-third of all trade is amongst neighbors - in the Middle East, less than seven percent of trade is between neighbors.
Just imagine the story that could be told by 2010 if all 22 Arab nations worked together to speak with one voice in the global economy. Rather than 22 separate markets, each with their own rules and barriers, imagine if they could find a way, as his Majesty King Abdullah has suggested, to create an open and inclusive society, one that is focused on transparency, and accountability, and trust; in short, all the things necessary for sustained business investment, but also good for society and for politics. There is simply no good reason why all Arab nations combined have a smaller GDP than Spain.
As a business leader, I can tell you that we see this region as a potentially powerful trading bloc of over 200 million customers, which has one quality in particular that makes it an investor's dream: half the population is under the age of 18, which means they could potentially be customers for life. If we can overcome the very complex rules that hinder the movement of goods, and services, and people, and investments, the Middle East could be the economic story of the next decade.
The same goes for education. Right now, 10 million Arab children between six and 15 years of age are currently out of school. We're told that if current trends persist, that number will increase by 40 percent over the next decade. That will make it even more difficult to attract new business.
But just imagine the story that could be told by 2010, if instead every child in the Middle East had the ability to live up to their full potential; if primary and secondary education were the norm, not the exception; if computers and computer literacy were made part of their lives. The average Muslim here in the U.S. gets better grades, earns a higher degree, and earns more money than the average citizen. It's happening here, and it can happen there.
I think women have to be a larger part of that equation. If the global economy has taught us anything, it has taught us that the most successful societies are the most inclusive societies - places where all voices are heard; where every person has a chance to succeed; where every person has the chance to live out their dreams. It is surely no accident that the United States economy has grown more prosperous than ever before exactly during those years when women and minorities have been more empowered to attend college, to own businesses, to hold elective office.
I have not in my life heard a more eloquent speaker, or met a more committed person than Queen Rania of Jordan. When I think that the Queen began her life in a refugee family, moving from place to place to escape conflict, it makes me think how easy it would have been to overlook the talent of this remarkable woman. It makes me wonder how many other young girls are out there today who have just as much potential, who are just waiting for the chance to show what they can do. I believe women are a large part of the power and potential and possibility for the Middle East going forward. If they become full partners in society, there's no telling how grand that story could be.
For every single one of these challenges, information technology must play a role. We have seen in developed nations how the right use of IT can empower people and business in new ways, to take productivity and growth to levels they have never been before. More and more in my industry, we talk about IT being a competitive asset or a competitive disadvantage. Just think about the ways it is changing all of our lives here.
But for all that technology means in countries like the U.S., its potential is even greater for regions like the Middle East. As we've seen, our newest technology applied to solutions like telemedicine, teleagriculture, and distance learning has a unique ability to help countries leapfrog years of development, to close the gap between technology-empowered communities and technology-excluded communities.
At HP, we are privileged to do our part. We have made a commitment to be an asset as well as a partner as the future of the Middle East takes shape. We are proud today to be the largest IT company operating in the Middle East - working from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Jordan to UAE - to use IT to empower more people than ever before.
Our special focus is on education. Today, I am proud to tell you that not only are we working with the Kingdom of Jordan on its education initiative, but earlier this month, we launched a new program in UAE to take university students and have them join HP for one year on an internship basis, to help train the future managers of this region. Later this year, we plan to launch the same program in Saudi Arabia.
We see this as the right thing to do. But we also see it as the smart business thing to do…at a time when just 10 percent of the world can afford to buy the products we make, we know that our future ideas, and customers, and employees are going to come from markets like the Middle East.
Progress is not made by cynics and doubters. Progress is made by those who focus on the possible.
I began by painting you a picture of the past. But just think of the picture we could see in the Middle East within a generation. We really do believe that if we focus on the possibilities and not just the problems; if we focus on the economics, and not just the politics of the Arab world - within a generation, we really will see education for everyone, with schools that are totally networked, and students and parents who interact over the Internet. We really will see a Middle Eastern trade block that is a significant trading partner for America, Europe and Asia, with people moving and working freely within that block. We really will see trade amongst Middle Eastern nations that constitute a significant part of the Middle Eastern economy, creating jobs and opportunity; we really will see a region that reclaims its rightful place as some of the leading thinkers, doers, and dreamers in the world.
As we work together, let us remember the example of Muhammad. When the Prophet Muhammad was still a young man, a stone fell from the Ka'ba. In response, the tribes of Mecca quarreled over which one would have the honor of returning it to its place. Rather than choosing one tribe over another, the young Muhammad solved the problem by placing the stone on a cloth so each tribe could hold a corner of the cloth, and all the tribes could lift it together.
May the wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad inspire us this week, and may his wisdom guide the Arab world as it works together to write a new story of the ages for our time.
Thank you for letting us be part of that journey.