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FORUM FEVER SWEEPS THE PENINSULA

Ayman Ali In the course of a single week, five major conferences and forums took place in the Arabian Peninsula, focussing primarily on dialogue between Arabs and the West. Though nobody expected much in the way of concrete results to come out of such meetings, they seem to reflect a growing belief in the region, particularly in the Gulf, that at least lip service to change is necessary. At one time last week, three such conferences were taking place in Sanaa, Abu Dhabi and Doha. More than a month ago, Kuwait hosted a seminar about Islamist factions and change in the region, grouping representatives of radical and mainstream Islamist movements with American officials and scholars. During the same period, Saudi Arabia had two rounds of its own internal dialogue aiming to bridge the gap between the conservatives in power and Saudi factions calling for change. This week, Manama, Bahrain hosted a Gulf development forum under the same common theme, while the Saudi capital of Riyadh was a venue for an inter-faith dialogue organised by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. One Gulf observer drew an analogy between the phenomena and the shopping festivals taking place in Dubai, Muscat, Kuwait and Jeddah in the spring, calling it a "dialogue festival". The cynicism of the analogy is not far from the truth. Gulf analysts talked about a hidden resentment between Yemen and Qatar, as Yemenis suspected Qatar of stealing the show from their conference by holding the second US-Islamic Forum at the same time. The Qatar-based satellite channel, Al- Jazeera, went out of its way to balance coverage from Doha, Sanaa and Abu Dhabi, so as to avoid accusations of partiality. Americans nearly boycotted the inter- governmental regional conference in Sanaa on democracy, human rights and the role of the international criminal court. The European Union, meanwhile, eagerly participated. The Doha forum was an unusual meeting of Arabs and Muslims with American and Israeli Zionists. Participants included Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution, and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former Israeli deputy prime minister. The Abu Dhabi meeting was mainly Emirati, attended by guests like Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani, Qatar's first deputy prime minister and foreign minister, who has not ruled out the possibility of partitioning Iraq and defended the foreign military presence in the region. More than 600 delegates from 40 countries across the Arab and Islamic world participating in the Yemen conference concluded that "democracy and human rights, application of the rule of law, which are compatible with all faiths and cultures, are interdependent and inseparable, and human rights must underpin any meaningful conception of democracy." Eloquent wording, but in practice not much is expected. Meanwhile, Yemen is asking Saudi Arabia this week to use their role as a regional leader to stop the Kuwaiti media's practice of describing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh as "little Saddam". The Abu Dhabi meeting, organised by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, was a platform for stating a vision for the future, relevant to American dominance in the region. UAE information minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, talked about the possibility of a "new" Iraq joining the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with Yemen considered ineligible. The Doha forum was the most significant. Opening the forum, Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the United Nations, stressed that the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq were not the subjects of this conference. Instead, he said, the forum should make progress on the issues on which the United States and the Arab world can find common ground, such as education, terrorism, and AIDS. Those who attended the closed session later said that every side was talking to himself in a dialogue of the deaf. Muslim cleric Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, shortly after participating in the Doha forum, was denied a US visa. Qaradawi, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, lives in Qatar and gives anti-American sermons. Qadi Hussein Ahmed of Pakistan's Jamaat Islamiya, found his president, Pervez Musharraf, still determined to crush Islamist militancy. According to one Gulf analyst, the region is in frantic competition to convey to the Americans that they hold the key to open a channel with Islamists. At the time of the Kuwaiti meeting, Qatar grouped Hassan Turabi of Sudan, Abasi Madani of Algeria, Rashid Ghanouchi of Tunisia, and other radical Islamist figures to maintain the impression that Qatar is the main gate for the West on radical Islam. An Arab-American scholar, however, hinted that Washington may not be in need of these channels, as the Brotherhood had previous contacts with the Americans.





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