WASHINGTON // President Barack Obama vowed to continue his effort to forge better relations between the United States and the Muslim world in a speech to Arab entrepreneurs. Emphasising "common aspirations", Mr Obama announced a new exchange programme for science teachers and a new collaboration that will connect hi-tech leaders in California's Silicon Valley with their counterparts in the Middle East, Turkey and southeast Asia.
"I pledged to forge a new partnership, not simply between governments, but also between people on the issues that matter most in their daily lives - in your lives," Mr Obama told about 250 business people and innovators from a mix of Muslim-majority countries who took part in the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship. "Over the past year, the United States has been reaching out and listening." The remarks on Monday used much of the same upbeat rhetoric that Mr Obama used in his Cairo speech last year, in which he outlined his hope for a "new beginning" to US-Muslim relations. The speech and the summit also served as stark examples of how his approach to the Muslim world, which includes a heavy focus on civil and social partnerships, differs from that of the Bush administration, which often focused on security issues.
Mr Obama vowed to meet US security needs, but he largely steered clear of politics, instead emphasising the need to focus on such subjects as telecommunications, health care, education, and infrastructure. He referred to the work of Dr Naif al Mutawa of Kuwait, who, after the Cairo speech, created a comic book series depicting Superman and Batman reaching out to their Muslim counterparts. "I hear they're making progress, too," Mr Obama said.
The president enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reception from participants, including those from the UAE such as Arif Naqvi, the chief executive of Dubai-based Abraaj Capital. Mr Naqvi said the summit was taking place at a "watershed moment" in history as governments in Muslim-majority countries sought to spur job growth to meet the needs of their young populations. "I think this initiative is superb and the timing is perfect," he said, noting that governments across the Middle East, North Africa and southeast Asia were ready to step up investment in the private sector and in small and medium-sized businesses.
"I think the evolution of the [private] sector is almost inevitable in our part of the world. Governments need to create the enabling environment." White House officials had described the summit as an unprecedented networking opportunity that would bring together talent from all corners of the world. On that front, the event proved on unquestioned success. Within minutes of concluding a panel discussion, Mr Naqvi had handed out all of his business cards and began jotting his e-mail address on scraps of paper.
Dr Abdalla Alnajjar, the president of the Sharjah-based Arab Science and Technology Foundation, also applauded the summit, saying it put a much-needed emphasis on the exchange of scientific knowledge. "There have been lots of calls on democratisation in the region, and many other issues from the security side, but we believe science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship are the real tools for creating a facelift for the region," he said.
In his speech, Mr Obama acknowledged that his vision of maximising co-operation between the US and the Muslim world would take years to realise. He noted, for example, that despite recent growth, trade between the US and Muslim-majority countries combined was roughly equivalent to the US trade with Mexico. Still, for Lubna Qassim, a lawyer and legal reform specialist from the UAE, the summit was proof that Mr Obama is ready to back up his words with action.
"In Cairo he spoke about a new beginning," she said. "I think the beginning has begun." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org