(hat tip to Rachel Ehrenfeld)
October 26, 2007 Edition > Section: Foreign > Printer-Friendly Version

Abu Dhabi Hosts Thinkers’ Fête

Special to the Sun
October 26, 2007
URL: http://www.ny/

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Of the 22 countries that constitute the Arab League, only three have formal diplomatic ties with Israel. The United Arab Emirates is not among them.
It would be fair to suggest, though, that the UAE — far more than Egypt, Jordan, and Mauritania, which maintain legations in Tel Aviv — is far more of an open society, far less hostile to Jewry, and much more welcoming to Western and, specifically, American, economic, political, and cultural interests. With a population of less than 5 million, of whom 80% are expatriates, the UAE is certainly a far more cosmopolitan place than practically any other Arab country, and one where there are virtually no restrictions on the nature of national discourse.That was conspicuously evident during the four-day Festival of Thinkers that ended here late Wednesday. The idea was to expose young Emirati students to the world’s finest minds so they could bett

er integrate into an evolving global culture, notwithstanding the fact that in the UAE no citizen is poor and no native really has to work for a living. The UAE, after all, pumps 2 million barrels of crude oil a day, has reserves of nearly 100 billion barrels of oil that will last at least 150 years, and will enjoy a surplus of more than $500 billion this year alone due to oil prices that have touched $90 a barrel.At the heart of the festival was the notion that it isn’t enough for Emiratis to be born wealthy; it is far more critical to accelerate the cross-fertilization of ideas with the outside world. The festival attracted 16 Nobel laureates, and more than 100 thinkers, including American and New York luminaries such as the astronaut Buzz Aldrin; the president of the International Longevity Center, Dr. Robert Butler; the president of Cooper Union, George Campbell; the founder of NewYorkSocialDiary.com, David Patrick Columbia; the chairwoman of the New York Institute of Technology, Linda Davila; the editorial director of American Media, Bonnie Fuller; the president of the Institute of International Education, Allan Goodman, who also administers the Fulbright Program; the editor of Discover magazine, Bob Guccione Jr., and the CEO of Prudential Douglas Elliman, Dottie Herman. Also attending were the executive vice president of Edelman Financial Communications, Kathleen Lacey Hoge; the editor of Reader’s Digest, Jacqueline Leo; the senior editor of Vogue, Shirley Lord; the president emeritus of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Dr. Paul Marks, and his wife, the Sarah Lawrence geneticist, Dr. Joan H. Marks; journalist Judith Miller; literary agent Lynn Nesbit; the president of Hunter College, Jennifer Raab; the president of Business for Diplomatic Action, Keith Reinhard, who is chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide; the president of the New York Times Company Foundation, Jack Rosenthal; the president of the New York Academy of Sciences, Ellis Rubinstein; the CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Carl Schramm; President Kennedy’s closest adviser and speech writer, Theodore Sorensen; the president of Ursinus College, John Strassburger, and the head of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, Marion Wiesel.

They may have been surprised at the warmth with which His Highness Sheik Nahayan Mabarak al-Nahayan, the biennial festival’s founder and the UAE’s minister of higher education, received the guests, many of whom are Jewish. Mrs. Wiesel sat next to the sheik at last night’s farewell dinner. The Oxford-educated sheik, a member of Abu Dhabi’s royalty, put it this way: “We have had a record of trading with the world from ancient times, and we want to be even more open to the world in this age of globalization. Some might say that we are moving too fast. But change is the order of the day, and our country wants to play its role in promoting global peace, security, and progress.”

The role has many dimensions. Dubai, one of the seven sheikdoms that formed the UAE in 1971, has transformed itself into a glitzy metropolis; its financial institutions have taken stakes in Nasdaq and other bourses. The more conservative Abu Dhabi, which possesses more than 90% of the UAE’s reserves of crude oil and natural gas, has decided to concentrate on developing institutions of culture, science, technology, and education.

It has already arranged to support the establishment of an outpost of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which will be designed by the Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry. It has invited the Louvre to plant roots here. Sheik Nahayan inaugurated the Nobel Museum a couple of days ago. New York University has agreed to start a campus in Abu Dhabi. In addition, The New York Sun has learned that the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, is being asked to come over to begin discussions to create a branch of his institution in this city of parks, palm trees, and beaches at the edge of what the Emiratis prefer to call the Arabian Gulf.

Clearly, Sheikh Nahayan seeks closer ties with New York’s cultural and intellectual establishment, and American participants at the festival came away with the impression that the UAE — a traditional American ally that hosts the largest American naval base outside America itself — represents a role model among Arab states, even if its governance is by family rule and not in the style of Westminster or Washington democracy.

Of course, every aspiring institution builder in the world seems to want the UAE’s money: At the festival, for instance, Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs seized the microphone at three major events on the opening day, repeated his signature mantra of protecting the global environment and alleviating global poverty, and then promptly proceeded to get signed commitments from the organizers to host a science and technology summit here next year.

October 26, 2007 Edition > Section: Foreign > Printer-Friendly Version


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