It was remarkable to read the front-page headlines of Emirati newspapers during the World Government Summit (WGS) held in Dubai to discuss the future of governance among other things. It was equally remarkable to compare them with the headlines of other Arab newspapers like Al-Hayat, which focused on the plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrians trapped in Aleppo or fleeing to Turkey, with heartbreaking images of afflicted children.
In the city that has hogged the limelight in the last few decades, practical plans were being laid down for the future. Some of the breathtaking advancements being envisaged have already arrived in Dubai. Meanwhile in the ancient city, that was the cradle of Arab culture for many centuries, people were barely able to breathe as the Syrian government and its allies cut off the only road connecting rebel-held Aleppo to the outside world, trapping nearly 300,000 people.
International NGOs have warned that more than a million Syrians are now living under siege as the five-year-old conflict rages on, causing an unprecedented humanitarian disaster as a consequence of the decisions made by the Syrian government.
This goes on even as the world powers continue to discuss the same-old diplomatic initiatives seen over the past five years, from the Geneva Communiqué to the Vienna Process. As the veteran duo – Russia’s Lavrov and Kerry of the U.S. – furrow their brows and smile alternatively, as if to suggest they have differences at times. They have found a new formula to overcome the difficulties facing the political process to resolve the Syrian war deliberately kept away from the U.S. and Russian cities.
This week’s meeting took place in Munich on the sidelines of a security conference there. The talks focused on confidence-building measures toward a conditional partial ceasefire. In the Arab region, the ruler of Dubai and vice president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, announced to his 10 million followers on Twitter that his government will create two new ministries, the Ministry of Happiness and Tolerance, and the Ministry of Youth.
The latter ministry was assigned to a 22-year-old woman, while five other women were given the portfolios of social development, tolerance and happiness, international cooperation, and the federal national council. The WGS, and the new ministries, were remarkable developments amid a restive regional climate haunted by the scourge of terrorism.
Some critics see this as a bubble and likens it to burying one’s head in the sand away from a reality marred by war and mass displacement by focusing on the promises of the future and its technological challenges. Realists, however, maintain that fixation with destruction and terrorism without any plan for confronting reality, except through military means, serves the purpose of those who want the Arab region to forever remain in a cycle of decline and devastation.
In a poll conducted by Ruya TV on the sidelines of the Summit, participants said innovative ideas to fight misguided views can defeat extremism and that educating the youth culturally, morally, and socially, using innovative non-traditional methods, can rein in radical ideologies. The respondents also said governments must leave no stone unturned to ensure jobs and decent livelihood and end poverty and unemployment as they make youth susceptible to extremism.
One can only feel sad for the generations living under authoritarian regimes and obscure destructive terrorist ideologies. These youth are denied the right to dream as they risk their lives as they flee from a bloody and deadly reality.
On the other hand, one can only feel happy for those who have been given the opportunity to realize dreams even as the rights to happiness, social development, and tolerance are institutionalized. Fortunate are the youth whose governments tell them they have the right to participate in decision-making and whose governments empower them, invest in their skills, and encourage them to innovate.
It is almost as though headlines such as “vision” and “citizenships to leadership: you are happiness” come from another world, not from the Arab region, where citizens usually curse leaders who often times oppress them in the name of religion and others in the name of national security.
The headlines of Lebanon’s newspapers wander between presidential vacuum, garbage crises, corruption, and maneuvers of Lebanese politicians. A country, which has had the reputation of being creative and free thinking intellect, is seeing its government, leaders, and political parties holding it back.
A government’s performance is not just a mere slogan, it determines whether countries are built or destroyedRaghida Dergham
People wonder: will we have a president? Will the Syrian war be brought to an end? Lebanese youths are asking: Shall I get married or the economic deterioration will continue preventing me from raising a family?
The headlines of Emirati newspapers speak of how the UAE is the world leader in attracting talent, in renewable and sustainable energy, and in plans for local and regional integration, innovation, and development. Emirati youths are proud that they will be able to keep pace with the future comfortably.
A government’s performance is not just a mere slogan, it determines whether countries are built or destroyed. This is today’s reality and it is the reality of the future. Governments will be crucial now and will be crucial in the era of the domination of robots on labor markets beginning with the end of this decade.
Indeed, governments will have to decide what to offer to human workers in light of the coming automation revolution, and there is no choice but to explore pathways for economic development as influenced by government policies.
According to the latest report by the A.T. Kearney’s Global Business Policy Council, published in conjunction with the WGS, the Middle East and North Africa region is poised to achieve high economic growth rates by 2020. However, this growth will be directly affected by government policies in the next five years.
The Summit sought to alert governments about the huge responsibilities they must shoulder in the future. Klaus Schwab, founder and CEO of the World Economic Forum, raised the question of whether the fourth industrial revolution has begun. He explained how a technological and innovation revolution is coming to the world like a tsunami, pointing out that the Arab region must prepare itself to join in boldly.
Jim al-Khalili, Iraqi-British Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, took 3,000 participants in the summit on a tour of the Arab Golden Age - When the World Spoke Arabic: The Forgotten Legacy of Arabic Science. He reminded us that in the past, we excelled, and we can do it again.
Eye on the future
The Summit’s agenda alerted people to the changes of the future that will alter life as we know it, challenging their imaginations. For example, Professor Sugata Mitra explained how the next generation of schools will be “cloud schools”. Doctor Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity University, explained what form future universities will take in a rapidly developing world. The day is not far when a child will teach himself and choose his specialty.
Children will soon ask what the words “I know” mean. Indeed, knowledge and information will become so instantaneous that the quest will not be for knowledge but will be around curiosity and asking the right questions.
In other sessions, interesting questions were raised such as what the world will look like more than 20 years from now. Will robots take over the world? Are robots the solution? Will we be printing human organs? Will the new retirement age be 100? What will governments do to adapt to this?
Another speaker asked, what if we soon celebrate our 200th birthday? What would happen to marriages, which usually last 30 to 50 years? Will couples be able to live together for a hundred years? What about jobs? Will longevity cause boredom and people would start thinking about changing careers several times in a lifetime?
A fascinating world is coming in the 21st century, and Arab youths can be part of it like their peers around the world, if governments govern and understand the future well. However, it was disheartening to listen to Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail. He said only 15 percent of Egyptian villages are covered by the sewage network project, which is expected to cover 50 percent of Egyptian villages in the next three years.
It was also painful to hear the Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah say that his country will be happy once more as it had the flavor of fantasy. It was hard to enjoy the tour of the future amid the news coming to today’s city, Dubai, from yesterday’s city, Aleppo.
It is hard to disconnect in the time of constant communication. Between breathtaking advancements and breath-stifling policies, there is a mind boggling distance.
This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Feb. 12, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.