Up Close and Personal with World Leaders on Bridging the Desert

About The Author

Brian Santhumayor of Nanthoor, Mangalore, has a Bachelors Degree in Engineering and MBA in Marketing and works as an Account Manager for an enterprise software firm in Manhattan. He actively writes articles on US Foreign Policy, UN and World Affairs. He volunteers by fundraising for numerous non-profit organizations including the American India foundation run by President Bill Clinton and has won numerous awards for his charitable efforts.

The World Affairs Councils of America kicked off its 2007 National Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C. The theme of this year’s conference was "Bridging the Desert: The Middle East in the Coming Decade." The Middle East continues to grow in importance on the world stage, amid much uncertainty as to its future. Its economic base may well be threatened because of growing instabilities at a political level and the changing oil markets. However, many governments, individuals, and organizations are actively pursuing a future in which the Middle East is in a position of stability and power.


As I walked into the Regency Ballroom, I was amazed to see the number of dignitaries present at the conference. They included foreign policy experts, ambassadors, advisors to the US and foreign governments, current administration officials, speechwriters, energy and environmental experts, foreign ministers etc. I have been a regular attendee to these conferences as they are stimulating, provocative, challenging and fast-paced.  It also gives me a chance to interact directly with policy makers, ambassadors, journalists, business executives and council members throughout the nation.

Deputy Asst Secretary of Defense Mark Kimmitt

The opening session was chaired by Ambassador David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. He spoke about the current conflict between Israel and Lebanon as well as US differences with the Iranian regime. He said, ?The US is committed to bringing an end to the Israel- Palestinian conflict. The Bush administration is preparing to pour $86 million into strengthening security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas."  David Welch has been working very closely with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on issues related to the Middle East crisis. Secretary Condoleeza Rice has been very supportive of the World Affairs Forum.
David Marash who was a former correspondent for ABC News "Nightline" and now the Chief Washington Anchor for Al-Jazeera English answered questions from the audience, some of who were critical of his joining the controversial Arab network. Marash called Al-Jazeera "a thoroughly respectable news organization" and described his new position as co-anchor from the network’s Washington studio as "the most interesting job on Earth." He also added, "We want to give the most sophisticated, most nuanced and most global view of the day’s events."


The highlight of the conference was a very soul searching and thought evoking debate about religion in the Middle East. It was chaired by the Right Reverend, John Chane- Eight Bishop of Washington, Fr. Nabil Haddad- Lelkite Priest from Amman, Jordan, M. Bruce Lustig- Senior Rabbi Washington Hebrew Congregation and Sulayman S. Nyang- Professor of African Studies, Howard University.  The debate was not meant to draw on some atavistic sense of nostalgia about religious glory but to understand the role religion plays in today’s global affairs from a theological perspective. Since Sept. 11, most Americans have become starkly aware of the great gaps in understanding and heightened tensions among Muslims, Christians, and Jews at home and abroad. Recognizing the need to build bridges and to strengthen moderate voices, many are experimenting with new forms of what some call "Abrahamic dialogue."
"The post-9/11 response," Rabbi Lustig says, "has intensified the need to make sure a moderate voice is heard in all faiths – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. We can’t allow the voice of extremists to be what’s in people’s minds." All the panelists agreed that religious faith should not be used as an instrument of war or hatred but should be used as a peacemaker. Rabbi Lustig stressed the fact that the burden of bringing peace does not lay solely on our government but on each one of us. He quoted that, "Great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King who strived their entire lives to bring change and peace." Sulayman Nyang said," America’s moral currency should be stronger than a dollar bill."

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice(L); Syrian Ambassador Dr. Imad Moustapha(R)

During lunch as we savored our appetites with some delicious steaks, we listened to the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Dr. Imad Moustapha talk to us about Syria’s relations with the United States, Lebanon, and Israel which has been a thorny issue.  Dr. Imad acknowledged that right now relations between the US and Syria are not at its best. He said, "Let me start by reminding you that Syria, just like too many other nations in the world, opposed the war on Iraq on principle, before the war took place. We believed at that time that the war on Iraq would create more problems than it would solve. And we thought that our region was an already troubled region and we have had already our fair share of wars and violence in the Middle East, and we do not need yet another war in our region." He also said," Syria is a mosaic of Muslims and Christians and perhaps the only Muslim country that recognizes all Christian holidays."
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on Middle East spoke about the challenges from Iran. He said, ?Iran exudes cultural superiority as it is one of the few countries that has never been colonized and also exerts influence over the whole region. Even Persian was the official language of India until 1830 when it was abolished." He said, "Today, Iran is more an empire than a nation as 50% population is other than Persian. It is important to know that what really unites Iran is the sense of Nationhood."

Rajiv Chandrasekaran

If you think that you have heard all you need to know about Iraq, then you would be astounded to hear what India’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran had to say. He is the Assistant Managing Editor of the Washington Post and the author of the best selling book ""Imperial Life in the Emerald City." He talked about how the CPA was the U.S. government’s first and best hope to resuscitate Iraq as it was armed with an endowment of $18 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds and a comparatively quiescent environment in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion. However he quotes Fredrick Smith, who served as the deputy director of the CPA’s Washington office, "We didn’t tap — and it should have started from the White House on down — just didn’t tap the right people to do this job. It was a tough, tough job. Instead we got people who went out there because of their political leanings." In his book Rajiv talks about a 24-year-old who had never worked in finance — but had applied for a White House job — was sent to reopen Baghdad’s stock exchange!

Egypt Ambassador Nabil Fahmy (L); His Excellency Abdullah Alireza, Minister of State – Saudi Arabia

It was an honor to meet and listen to His Excellency Sheik Abdullah Alireza, the Minister of State for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He said, "Today there are two important things happening in Saudi Arabia. They are the advent of the private sector and wealth creation through development of a productive base in society. In the case of the former the government has made a conscious decision to bring in the private sector to work with the government in a partnership that will allow it to take the lead and be the driver in the next boom. As a result our economy today is one of the top 25 in the world. It accounts for one fifth of the GDP of the entire Middle East and one quarter of all trade among Arab countries. It generates two thirds of all the aggregate GDP formation within the Gulf Cooperation Council."  He said, "In order to pursue these ambitious economic initiatives Saudi Arabia remains committed to building an ever more dynamic free market economy. So Saudi Arabia?s vision for the next 20 years is one of movement away from an oil supplier into an energy provider." He also talked about Saudi’s continuing strong ties with India, China and Brazil. The minister fielded some real tough questions from the American audience about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, which has always been a sore issue in today’s progressive world.

UAE Staff Brigadier General Mahfooz Yakheek Al Shehhi – Defense, Military, Naval, and Air Attache’ (Left); UAE Ambassador – His Excellency Saqr Ghobash

Having lived in Dubai for several years, I was delighted to have dinner with the UAE Ambassador to the US, Mr. Saqr Ghobash and Staff Brigadier General Mahfooz Yakheek Al Shehhi- who is the Defense, Military, Naval and Air Attache’. We were treated to a lavish Arabic dinner at the splendid UAE embassy complex. Ambassador Saqr talked to us about the recent Dubai Ports deal that had to be shelved and still how much needs to be done to build complete trust between the US and the UAE people. He also told us of the gracious $100 Million donation the ruler of Dubai made to the people affected by the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. He received a standing ovation at the end of his speech. The Ambassador was very pleased to know that I had lived in the UAE for several years and asked me to tell the American people present there as to how hospitable and kind the people of UAE were.

Dennis Ross – Ambassador to Israel under President Bush and Clinton

The final discussion at the conference was on the "Future of Oil in the Middle East." Some of the statistics presented were mind-boggling. In 2001 the energy consumption was about 404 Quad BTU. By 2030, it will jump to 722 Quad BTU. The most rapid growth in energy demand from 2003 to 2030 is projected for nations outside the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (non-OECD nations). Energy demand growth averages 3.7 percent per year for non-OECD Asia (which includes China and India), 2.8 percent per year for Central and South America, 2.6 percent per year for Africa, 2.4 percent per year for the Middle East, and 1.8 percent per year for non-OECD Europe and Eurasia.
Having talked to many people in the US about state of the world around us, I sense that there is a general feeling that ?one has fallen into a funk of pessimism and desperation when looking at the world around." But, having attended four days of the conference, I definitely see a ray of hope that if the world leaders and people around the world work towards a common goal of peace, there could be a sense of optimism for our future generations and us!

Author: Brian Santhumayor- USA