x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Great minds think alike on progress

The Festival of Thinkers began in Abu Dhabi, with a guest list that includes some of the greatest intellects on the planet.

A dancer balances on her partner's hand during the conference's opening ceremony.
A dancer balances on her partner's hand during the conference's opening ceremony.

ABU DHABI // Among the topics for discussion are world poverty, health care, climate change and the global recession. Even for the 15 Nobel laureates gathered in the Emirates Palace hotel yesterday, fixing those issues is a tall order.

But the message at the Festival of Thinkers remained positive - through co-operation and creativity, progress can be made. The hope, the organisers said, was to recreate the Middle East's place as a cultural centre and to revive "the Gulf region's liberal traditions", almost like a miniature, modern House of Wisdom. As inspiration, the words of Greek philosophers loomed above on a gigantic screen.

"For millennia, our region has been a crossroads for people, ideas, and commerce," Sheikh Nahyan bin Mabarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the chancellor of the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), said in his opening address. "It has always welcomed travellers and scholars with unparalleled hospitality. It is the home of some of the earliest universities and many great ideas have been produced by scholars from the Arab world."

The biennial festival, of which The National is a partner, has attracted some of the greatest minds alive. They sat alongside perhaps the next generation of intellectuals - a group of HCT students. The list of attendees included Shirin Ebadi, the first Iranian and Muslim woman to win the Nobel Prize, for her pursuit of human rights, John Nash Jr, the mathematician and economist whose life was the subject of the Academy Award-winning film A Beautiful Mind, and Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

First on the agenda of the three-day event was female empowerment, a theme that dominated much of the first day. Dr Ebadi, whose opinions have often caused anger among her country's clerical leadership, delivered a stirring indictment of illiteracy among women and their lack of political rights in the Muslim world. "In our religion, women have political rights. No society can achieve political and economic progress while half its population is being neglected," said Dr Ebadi.

"Education is obligatory. Why do we forget our religious decrees? Why has the level of illiteracy gone up in Islamic countries? "Literacy is obligatory just like prayer is. It is a wajib [requirement], not mostahabb [encouraged]." Dr Ebadi criticised the pressure on Muslim women to stay at home once they finish university. "Young girls, after they graduate from university and become housewives, their education is wasted," she said. "We must not put our books aside once we have finished university. Serving society is a religious duty. They must fulfil that duty. Half the potential of society has been neglected."

In keeping with the creative theme, the difficulty of overcoming challenges without the involvement of both sexes was illustrated by a display of contemporary dance in which a man and a woman used their combined strength and dexterity to pull off some stunning moves. Among the audience was Cherie Blair, the wife of the former British prime minister Tony Blair and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

Mrs Blair, who took part in a panel on economic prospects beyond the financial crisis, said: "What we're seeing in the last few years is a real change in the Middle East in general, but in the UAE in particular. "We're seeing much more emphasis in involving women in government." Mrs Blair pointed to the role of Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the Minister of Foreign Trade. She then went to a meeting on women's issues hosted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

As Gavin Esler, a BBC broadcaster acting as master of ceremonies, said: "The thinking has indeed begun." @Email:kshaheen@thenational.ae