CAIRO: US President Barack Obama hosted a summit of entrepreneurs from 50 Muslim-majority nations Monday, in line with the administration’s strategy to mend ties with the Muslim world.
The aim of the two-day summit is to shift the focus from talking about terrorism and conflict to boosting economic development in Muslim nations.
Obama made a pledge to host the meeting in a landmark speech in Cairo last June, when he also called for a "new beginning" to relations between the United States and the Muslim world.
"Real change comes from the bottom up, and that is why we are here," Obama said as he announced a string of new educational and entrepreneurial exchanges with Muslim nations.
"By listening to each other we have been able to partner with each other," he said, announcing that a new US Global Technology and Innovation fund could "potentially mobilize" $2 billion of private investment.
A live feed at the US Embassy in Cairo broadcast the opening remarks from Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who said that boosting Muslim business not only would help the Muslim world, but would also help US security and trade.
"There are over a billion people living in Muslim-majority countries today, and they represent a vast reserve of under-utilized potential in the global economy," Locke said.
He spoke of recognizing and mobilizing the talent that already exists, expanding individual successes to the whole of the Muslim world. The delegates present, he said, are the ones that drive growth and development in their own countries.
"It is very much in America’s — and indeed, the entire world’s — interest that you succeed."
“The US engages in this effort in the spirit of partnerships, not patronage,” Locke assured.
As the US emerges from the worse crisis many have seen in their lifetimes, Obama is taking “bold steps,” focusing on international trade, he said. However, strong and balanced trade can only work when countries have a middle class that is integrated into the global economy.
Locke spoke of his own background, coming from an immigrant family who owned a grocery store about a mile away from where he later took residence as governor. “We always joke in my family that it took 100 years to travel one mile,” he said.
Yet, he continued, “immigration should not be the only pathway” in the search for opportunity. “Entrepreneurs can change societies,” he added, giving a nod to the power of social networking sites that have changed the way people around the world interact and communicate.
“Muslim communities have the capacity to nurture an entrepreneurship culture; the challenge is to grow new industries and opportunities.”
Locke went on to assure that this is only the first step in what the Obama administration sees as the process of creating a sustainable focus on entrepreneurship, adding that “ambition can transform lives, but only when met with opportunity.”
US ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey told the audience in Cairo that the Obama administration is “committed to fostering a new beginning.”
Egypt’s delegation is the biggest in Washington, she said, reflecting the country’s “already active place in promoting entrepreneurship.”
Ten organizations have already signed letters of intent to promote partnerships that will work towards continuing the momentum of the entrepreneurship summit.
Scobey’s remarks were followed by a panel discussion from some of Egypt’s most prominent entrepreneurs: Dina El-Mofty of Injaz, internationally-renowned jeweler Azza Fahmy, Nadia Wassef of Diwan, and Ibrahim Abouleish, chairman of Sekem, whose son Helmy is part of Egypt’s delegation in Washington.
The panelists spoke of their own experience opening and growing businesses in Egypt, the challenges they met and their views of the vital issues that need to be addressed to promote a risk-taking culture. Improving education and promoting innovation topped the list, as well as changing prevailing cultural attitudes that only value professions in the fields of medicine or engineering.
“There needs to be a paradigm shift in viewing youth not as a liability, but as an asset; and it makes sound business sense to invest in this asset,” El-Mofty said.
In Washington, Obama thanked Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for offering to host the next such summit in his country next year.
Around 250 entrepreneurs are attending the summit from countries across the Muslim world, ranging from a 20-year-old entrepreneur to established figures like Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, who won a Nobel prize for his work on small-scale lending.
As part of Obama’s plan, the United States is poised to award contracts through its multi-million-dollar Global Technology and Innovation Fund, designed to spur investments in the Muslim world.
The government-backed Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which is running the competition, has received a deluge of applications, which officials say is itself a sign of improving ties.
Each chunk of funding awarded by OPIC is expected to be worth between $25 and 150 million.
US development agency USAID on Monday announced it was setting up 13 new partnerships to "nurture entrepreneurship."
One of the projects involves setting up an investment fund that will leverage $250 million to finance "micro, small and medium-size enterprises" in the Middle East and North Africa. –Additional reporting by Associated Press.