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10 Mar, 2011

Arabs Hit Back, Urge Europeans To Avoid Stereotypes & Clichés

ITB BERLIN — Arab and Muslim speakers have called on Europeans to try and better understand what is going on in the Middle East, to take a more positive, long-term attitude about the prospects of change and to steer clear of stereotypes and clichés.

The message was delivered very professionally and emphatically by three prominent personalities of the Arab and Muslim worlds, including the head of the UN World Tourism Organisation, in a groundbreaking session organised at the ITB Convention on the impact of the unfolding developments in the Middle East and North Africa on travel and tourism.

UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai, the first Arab to head the global body, said, “If the rest of the world is slightly apprehensive and scared about it is because they don’t know much about what is happening. And I would rather look at the opportunities, not just in the Middle East but also for the rest of the world. Europe has a great, great interest in a democratic, stable, transparent and open Middle East and North Africa. Europe has no interest in seeing a Middle East as stable as they thought it would be if it were run by dictatorships. And (dictatorship) is what is driving the people of the Middle East out of the Middle East and into other countries.”

The comments in the session on March 9 came one day after the March 8 opening ceremony of the 45th ITB Berlin that was also dominated by comments by speakers of other winds of change blowing through the Middle East.  Inspired by the presence of former Polish President Lech Walesa, the former trade union leader whose agitation in the 1970s and 80s triggered political change led all the way to the end of the Cold War, both the Mayor of Berlin and a German minister spoke loftily about the importance of freedom and democracy and the need for Europeans to contribute to that process.

The discussion has taken the global travel industry into new territory. It has clearly crossed a Rubicon by putting geopolitics on the agenda of industry forums. The Germans and Europeans were reminded that the freedom being sought by the people of the Middle East and North Africa is no different from the freedom that the people of the former Communist regime sought in the days of the Cold War, and that if they move away from the “stereotypes and clichés” about religion, specifically Islam, they might find that the outcome will be as beneficial as that which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany. Indeed, the Europeans were reminded of their own history of religious intolerance, with perhaps just a hint of a question about whether they themselves may be going back to the Mediaeval Ages.

The discussion on March 9 was classified as a “Hot Topic” on the programme of the ITB Convention. In addition to Dr Taleb, it was addressed by Mrs Hebatallah Ismail Hafez, Middle East Expert, Deutsche Welle, and Samih Sawiris, Chairman & CEO, Orascom Development, a major Egyptian and Arab conglomerate. It was moderated by Prof. Dr. Gudrun Krämer, Director of the Berlin Graduate School, Muslim Cultures and Societies.


Dr Kramer began by saying nobody is quite sure where the Middle East situation is heading and its consequences for the Arab world, the world at large and the tourism industry specifically. She said Germans were “very concerned” watching the developments, especially the possible emergence of Islamic societies in Tunisia and “possibly in Egypt.” She wondered whether from a German perspective, people should ask about the consequences or focus on the opportunities?

Mrs Hafez said that the uprising in Egypt had been a truly broad-based representative movement, which had brought together people from all walks of life, “people like you and me, women in headscarves together with women in jeans.” She said this was the facebook generation which had known no other leader other the ousted President Hosni Mubarak during their entire lifetimes. They knew there were shortcomings in the system and had tried to use democratic means in the past to voice their opinions but were prevented from doing so. That is when, motivated by developments in Tunisia, they took to the streets. “You could see them on TV,” she said. “Men with (religious) beards and men who were wearing hippie-style clothes.” The end result, she said, has been that people have become aware of how powerful they are.

Dr Kramer came back to the issue of Islam and what role it had played. Again, Dr Hafez said the uprising had united both Christians and Muslims, both of whom had prayed together and protected each other.  “People realised that they can live peacefully together. Egyptians are a religious people but they are not extremists.” She said groups like the Muslim Brotherood, an Islamic political party, were represented in the uprising “but they were not the main stakeholders.” At the same time, she said, their presence cannot be denied or swept under the carpet.” However, she felt that under the present system, “politically speaking they have become weaker in the changes that are now taking place.” She said people in Europe seemed to be much too concerned about Egypt falling into the hands of Islamic parties. “They are all part of society,” she said. Rather than being “concerned or angry, Europeans should read and understand more about what is really going on and not just believe in stereotypes and clichés.”

Mr Sawiris backed this argument from a tourism perspective. He said that Egypt was well experienced in handling such events because of the recent history of terrorism and wider violence in the Arab world. “For a while, there is a lot of anxiety and then things go back to normal.” He noted that nobody could afford such events to have anything other than a temporary impact. “Aircraft cost millions of dollars. If you leave them on the ground, the company goes bankrupt. Nobody can afford that,” he said. This latest uprising, he said, did not involve foreigners and had not affected foreigners. “Hence there is no bitter after-taste, which usually takes longer to clear up. As long as there is no further violence, and the flights resume, the crisis will soon be over.”

“In the long term, things will become better,” he said. “People like going to clean, healthy, open societies, which are more attractive to tourists. Now people are more cautious and environmentally aware. They prefer democratic societies. That will play out as an advantage.” However, he admitted that the developments have not yet come to an end. “Establishing a new order will take a long time. Some regimes such as in Libya they are willing to fight and exterminate their own people.”


He then commented on Dr Kramer’s focus on the Islamic issue, noting that he himself was a Christian. “We need to take a more differentiated approach. It is important to avoid stereotypes.” He cited the religious history of Egypt dating back to the Pharaohs. “When each new pharaoh came along, they brought in a new deity. Then for many centuries we became Christians and then we became Muslims and first followed the Sunni branch of Islam and then shifted to the Shia branch and then became Sunni again. So there is a lot of flexibility of people in their approach to religion and that is one reason why Egyptians treat each other peacefully. Unlike Saudi Arabia or Iran where there is a low tolerance of other beliefs.”

Dr Kramer noted that it was important to address the issue of perception, that being religious is not the same as fanaticism or being aggressive against foreigners.

Again Mr Sawiris rose to the occasion. He said Christians need to look into their own history and the conflicts that took place between Protestants and Roman Catholics (a reference to both the reformist movement led by Martin Luther in Germany and even the most recent conflict in Ireland). He said look at Spain, which was under Islamic rule for hundreds of years and where all religions lived quite peacefully. In fact, he reminded Dr Kramer that persecution of Jews had not begun until the Christians returned to power in Spain. He said such things are poorly reflected in the German media where pictures of a lone individual with a beard gets more publicity than pictures of “Christians and Muslims sitting together at a table drinking beer.”

Dr Kramer again raised the issue of Islamic parties coming to power and the impact that would have on tourism. Mr Sawiris indicated that he was not particularly worried. He said all the religious parties know the importance of tourism to the Egyptian economy, which would “suffer intolerably” if there were any moves to ban or limit the sale of alcohol. “They have to just live with the facts.” He said the parties themselves had been asked to clarify their position and they said they would not make an issue out of it. “So I am not worried. In fact, I think the Muslim Brotherhood have been given more credit than they deserve. I can tell you that the former regime was using these people to keep itself in power by convincing (Western governments) that the reason why the dictators had to be supported is because if they didn’t, the Islamic parties would gain power. Today the situation makes clear that the people were able to organise themsleves without the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Dr Kramer finally turned to Dr Rifai to assess the situation and its impact on tourism. The UNWTO chief noted that it “is very important to see tourism as a human activity as well as an interface between social and political and economic developments.

“Tourism is an economic activity, people crossing borders people interfacing and interacting with other cultures and other people. In the midst of all this there is business done, that is leisure being enjoyed, there are other purposes for this travel but it is about… And in this the human activity becomes so extensive and so expansive. There are millions of people moving around the world. People who visit a place, change. And people who are visited, change as well. Visitors get a first-hand feeler about the places (they visit). It is said that you can never get a feeling of animosity towards a people that you have visited. In the process there are many, many changes that happen as a result of greater interaction.”


He noted that developments in the Middle East have not just happened overnight. “This rebirth, this rejuvenation, took years and years of feelings and convictions building up until they come to that flashpoint. Tourism may flourish in a political system that is not democratic or not transparent or somewhat not too open. But it won’t flourish too long. Tourism not only flourishes but blossoms in more open societies. The energies of people, the innovations, the nature of people is unlocked. Even businesses can flourish better in systems which are open and transparent.”

Dr Rifai credited the tourism industry by helping to facilitate the change. “I think the people of Egypt became more attuned to what the world is all about by more people visiting them.”

He acknowledged that there have been some short-term impacts, but in the medium and long term it is going to become much better. “People of Egypt have gained respect. You go to Egypt now and you want to see the exciting story. You just don’t want to see just the Pyramids, Abu Simbel, Red Sea resorts, you want to go to Tahrir Square, you want to see the story of the day. The people of Egypt have regained that respect in the eyes of the world. And people like to go to places where they respect the people of. So I see a correlation between what is happening and tourism quite strongly even stronger than any other enterprise.”

Mr Sawiris stepped in here to say that he was sure the changes will spread to other countries. He said the joke going around the Middle East is that Egypt and Tunisia have played in the finals and left the other countries to compete for the third and fourth place. “We don’t know whether this is going to be Yemen or Libya. But it’s going to go on. I’m sure. You will not have a country in the Middle East able to sustain the current regime of over-ruling the public opinion. This is no longer going to be sustainable. You will see even the monarchies leaving some of the absolute rights they have inherited, over the generations, to the people. Even the monarchies would have to start moving in that direction.”

Dr Kramer reverted to Dr Rifai to discuss the impact on tourism, especially in relation to the rise in oil prices.

Said Dr Rifai, “The kind of solidarity that we saw in the world towards the developments in Egypt and Tunisia was as shocking as the events themselves. We are living in a world where all the experts, all the specialists are failing to see the events unfold. The economic crisis hit us like a slap in the face while all the experts and bankers of the world were saying we are all doing fine. Then finally somebody comes up and says we are doing it wrong way. The events of January and February in the Middle East, shocked everybody. Nobody saw them coming because we were not looking. We were just observing. We were not seeing what is really going on. Even other issues like climate change is really going in a direction that defies the apparent stability. But in their own way, it is going in the right direction.

“I want to caution a little bit about linking the price of oil to the crisis. This is incorrect. We (the UNWTO) had already issued a detailed study in November 2010 after seeing oil prices rise way back in September and October this. In 2007 and 2008 the price of oil was $150. There was no crisis in the Middle East at that time. And it was the best year for tourism in the Mideast. The price went down to $70 and $80 and now it is up again. This is a serious and dangerous argument if we start saying that the Middle East events have caused this. No. The people of the Middle East are doing what they believe to be right for their countries. They want to regain their country. Let’s not confuse the two.

“The price of oil is controlled by many other factors. The crisis in the Middle East may have an impact, slightly up slightly down. It could be, but that’s not the point. Let us separate the two. One is a historical moment that we are experiencing in North Africa and the Middle East. And the other is simply an issue of supply and demand and speculation which is affected marginally by these events.”


Dr Rifai concluded his remarks and the session with one final and very important word of caution. “I would be very, very careful in the language that we use to describe what is happening.” He said that in the last few days before the ITB, he had been to a number of places including Dublin and Andorra. “And people everywhere would talk about ‘the crisis in the Middle East, the risks in the Middle East, the dangers in the Middle East, the horrors in the Middle East, the terrible things that are happening in the Middle East.’ I think we should be extremely careful about this. What is happening in the Middle East is a historic transformation and change. We should call it what it is. If the rest of the world is slightly apprehensive and scared about it, it is because they don’t know much about what is happening. And I would rather look at the opportunities, not just in the Middle East but for the rest of the world.

“Europe has a great, great interest, in a democratic, stable, transparent and open Middle East and North Africa. Europe has no interest in seeing a Middle East as stable as they thought it would be if it were run by dictatorships. And that is what is driving the people of the Middle East out of the Middle East and into other countries. That is what is making the people of the Middle East more radical. And that is what is making people of the Middle East turn to be the only other alternative that they have been turning to, which is religion. The debate is not about religion. That is a different thing. The debate is about the political usage of religion to achieve goals that  these people have not been able to achieve. And let’s call it what it is. It could be Islam. At some point of time in history it was Christianity. In other parts of the worlds….. It’s not about religion. It’s about the political utilisation of religion for political agendas.”

Dr Kramer ended the session by thanking Dr Rifai for his “clear words” and expressing the hope that there would be a better future ahead for the peoples of the Middle East.


In tone and content, the same issues came up in the speeches at the opening ceremony where Dr Rifai also spoke, noting that the last decade had begun with a “redefinition of global geopolitics following 9/11” and now this second decade of the 21st century was also beginning against the background of “significant geopolitical shifts.” (See the full text of his speech here.) Effectively, his speech has set the stage for geopolitics to become a long overdue subject of discussion on travel industry agendas globally.

The highlight of the opening ceremony was the presence of another revolutionary freedom movement leader, Lech Walesa, who won a long round of applause when he came up on stage.

German political leaders also chipped in to voice concern and express hope. Klaus Wowereit, the Mayor of Berlin, said it was time for the dictators to be told “that the time has come that they must leave.” He said that the region is rising up again oppression and that we need to support them.” He voiced hope that the tourism will kick start again sooner or later.”

Federal Minister of Economics Rainer Brüderle hailed Mr Walesa noting that German reunification would not have been possible without the movement led by Mr Walesa. “You helped to change the world,” he said.

Klaus Laepple, President of the Federal Association of the German Tourism Industry (BTW) also raised the issue of changes in the Middle East, noting that tourism will definitely be affected both in Germany and the Middle East.  He said the countries where it is happening were also highly dependent on tourism for jobs and income. Voicing the hope for an upswing in business before the Easter holidays, Mr Apple said, “Tourism needs an open world so as to fully develop itself.”

Mr Walesa also spoke, noting the role of tourism in helping to balance economies and people’s living standards. “God has not distributed things evenly. Some are rich and some are not. This is why I would like to invite you to come to Poland,” he said. He also paid tribute to the Germans for their own reunification efforts and the attainment of a free Europe.

He downplayed his own role in the changes. “This is not the idea of one man. It had been coming for generations, many people had to fight for their rights. We have to be determined to walk down this path.” At the same time, he said it is positive and healthy to have differences as long as there is agreement on the fundamentals. “We need to argue about our future. But I see sometimes that we deny the past.” He said that the new age of globalisation cannot be ushered in with the old structures, and that this will involve arguments about what should emerge. “But we should always be open to good proposals. We should not enter into negative competition.”

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