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Frederic Sicre: WEF's pilot talks of politics.

By Ghassan Joha, Star Staff Writer Frederic Sicre, managing director of the World Economic Forum (WEF), was regarded this week as the most influential among his fellow colleagues at the forum's third consecutive meeting in the Dead Sea resort. A former radio reporter, the 41-year-old Sicre has an extensive experience in this part of the world since he first joined the WEF in 1989 to be in charge of its Middle Eastern and North African affairs. Eleven years later he was given the forum's helm.Sicre is much remembered for orchestrating the first Middle East and North Africa summit in Casablanca in 1994, which gathered Arab and Israeli leaders to develop a common economic agenda for the region. His influence was obvious through his moderation at some of the WEF's sessions in recent years, especially the ones held at the Dead Sea.This week, he refereed debates on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including the one on May 22--the WEF's last day--that aimed at reviving the peace process. This session featured intense estrangement between Palestinian and Israeli officials. But the real debate was earlier in a session titled "The People Power and Change in the Arab World", where a panel of business and political leaders discussed the effects of recent democratic movements in the Middle East.Sicre attributed the movements to "the rise of Arab citizens", while Elizabeth Cheney, US principal deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, denied the fact that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is still a foremost concern for Arabs. Cheney was encountered with Arab officials who insisted the conflict is a real obstacle to regional reform. Cheney's denial forced Sicre to adopt a neutral stance."It is no secret to anybody that there are differences of points of view in terms of where the conflict lies, and how much is it an obstacle to reform," Sicre said in an exclusive interview with The Star. "The conflict has been a contingency for so many years, and I think the facts speak for themselves today. When you look at the surveys we have been doing on the Arab street, people are becoming increasingly concerned about their own economic future. It does not mean that the Arab people are no more concerned about the Palestinian cause, but it does mean that now there is another issue on their agenda," he said. "It is very useful for people like Ms Cheney and other Americans to come to the region in order to hear and take the temperature of how people feel." According to a recent survey conducted by the Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV satellite channel, on behalf of WEF, about 85 percent of the respondents said they believe the main obstacle to reform is the Arab governments. Senior Arab officials reiterated reforms are inevitable, but distrusted Al Arabiya's survey, which put the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as Arabs' third major concern. Israel's unilateral Gaza disengagement plan was also highlighted at WEF, especially on the meeting's last day when Sicre failed to bridge the gap between the Palestinians and Israelis. "It is true that attention has been focused only on the Gaza plan, and it is very important to know what comes after Gaza. What we are trying at WEF is to make sure investments can come in as soon as the withdrawal takes place, because if the Palestinians do not see any difference on the ground to their lives, then the future is not going to be easy." Sicre regarded the debates between the Palestinians, Israelis and Americans at the WEF as "healthy signs, better than not talking to one another." But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has dominated WEF's previous two meetings at the Dead Sea without a substantial advance."It is a long process," stressed Sicre, who pointed that the presence of US congressmen and senators at this year's WEF offered them the opportunity to interact with the entire region. He said that the first hand experience they gained highlights the impetus to engage other American politicians and legislators in the region's affairs. "I believe the American attitude is becoming increasingly sensitive to the differences in this region. The WEF meeting is part of helping everybody to understand one another better. Are there going to be disagreements in the future? I think so. Are we moving forward? We are. The mood here has been optimistic, compared to last year when people were trying to find their way forward."As politics dominated WEF's debates at the Dead Sea, participants did often align their attention with economic perspectives. Many economies in the region seek to diversify their potentials, by enticing foreign investments despite the fact that political instabilities in the region have the upper hand."Our objective is to stimulate dialogue with the business community. Remember that a lot of these discussions have been taking place amongst politicians, but not with business leaders. I think it is important that business leaders give their points of view to the politicians. What is happening in the discussion room is that business leaders are actually taking the lead by telling the politicians: If you do not get this right, do not expect us to invest."A soaring criticism was heard among representatives of the media at the WEF over the decision to hold sessions behind closed doors. The press was denied access to a session tackling the role of the media in the region. Sicre said, "We wanted to keep the principal people feel more comfortable away from the media, this way dialogue can be frank and open." Frederic Sicre: WEF's pilot talks of politics

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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:May 29, 2005
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