Everything is politics: even Nobel Prize winners can't change that

In the Middle East, politics can get in the way of even the most unpolitical pursuits.

'Perfect." That is how one of the participants at the Fourth Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates held in the Old Nabataean City in Jordan last week described the gala dinner hosted by King Abdullah in honour of 25 Nobel laureates and more than 200 politicians, statesmen and intellectuals who took part in the conference.

It was. Magnificent lighting reflected on the majestic rocks of the city carved in stone more than 2,000 years ago. Men in black ties and women in long dresses fell into contemplative silence as the sound of the world-renowned American soprano Renée Fleming captivated an audience already mesmerised by the awe-inspiring monuments of Petra.

But it was only one evening. It was perfect, but it was also detached from the tense Middle Eastern reality that forced itself on the deliberations of the conference which in vain sought to "look beyond politics to imagine practical approaches to sustainable growth".

A few hundred kilometres from Palestine and Iraq and Lebanon, the conference could not look beyond politics. The conflicts of the region were present in every breakaway session, in the side discussions of participants and in the body language of Arabs and Israelis who walked side by side, many trying to avoid the other.

Nobel laureates brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the deliberations the organisers of the conference set up to address energy, economic development, culture and many other pressing matters for the region and the rest of the world. But little of that found its way into the press coverage of this annual event. We were in the Middle East - politics reigned supreme.

The conference announced the commencement of the working of the Middle East Science Fund, which was established last year to promote scientific co-operation in the region and support higher education in the scientific field. But this was not news for local and regional media that focused on a verbal skirmish between Israeli president, Shimon Peres, and the secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Mousa, over who is responsible for the failure of the peace process.

I moderated a plenary session on whether the media were a force for positive change. In that session, we addressed the limitations and the potential of regional and global media in the age of post telecommunication revolutions. But many eyes were watching to see if the Israeli panellist would use the session to attack Arab positions and media, and whether I would let him get away with that. I did not.

In an ideal world, this conference would have been celebrated as a significant effort to bring the expertise of the world's best scientists and thinkers to a region still lagging behind in development and scientific achievement. But in the troubled region that the Middle East has been, many attacked the conference as an untimely step towards normalising ties with Israelis, or at least a detached exercise that will leave no mark behind.

Ever since the Middle East peace process was launched in Madrid in 1992, a few dared bring Arab and Israelis together in third-track encounters. American, European and even Arab non-governmental organisations dedicated resources to gathering Israelis and Arabs to discuss pressing economic and social issues of mutual concern and where joint efforts could produce better results in addressing them. The thinking was that bringing old-time foes around one table and engaging them in joint economic and cultural projects could facilitate political reconciliation.

When the peace process was progressing, there were individuals and institutions willing to take part in such exercises despite severe criticism from anti-normalisation groups. But as the peace talks started to collapse and faith in peaceful negotiations as a path for ending the occupation started to erode, fewer and fewer people placed value in such meetings.

The Petra Nobel Laureates Conference is not meant as an Arab-Israeli third-track dialogue. But the nature of the conference, co-organised by the Israeli Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel through a foundation he set up after winning the prize for peace in 1986, made the attendance of Israeli participants a must. That was enough to generate a perception that the conference served to force normalisation among Arabs and Israelis. Naturally, the conference became a target for attack.

The reality is that every thing in the Middle East is political. No matter what objective any endeavour defines for itself, the presence of Arabs and Israelis will bring the Arab-Israeli conflict to its core. This is what happened in Petra. The novelty of the exercise and the value inherent in bringing such great minds to this 2,000-year-old city, once a hub for regional trade and culture, was compromised by the fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict is still a source of pain and suffering for Palestinians and an obstacle to Middle Eastern peace and development.

It is easy to shoot down the Petra conference as a dreamer's effort that will have no bearings on daily life in the region. But the fact remains that it is an attempt to do something positive despite the politics. That is something that the region needs if we are to reduce the devastating consequences of conflicts and to escape our harsh reality, not just to the magnificence of Petra and the brilliance of Renée Fleming, but also to intellectual discussions of how to advance the region.

Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs

Published: June 25, 2008 04:00 AM


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