President Barack Obama launches a new effort on Monday to build business and social ties to the Muslim world, but analysts say the need for progress on big issues like Middle East peace will overshadow the initiative.
Obama hosts a two-day Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship that will bring together about 250 successful business and social entrepreneurs from more than 50 countries, most with large Muslim populations, fulfilling a pledge he made in his Cairo speech to the Islamic world last June.
The president will address the summit at the end of the first day to underscore his commitment to deepening our engagement around the world with Muslim-majority communities, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said.
While the summit is widely viewed as a positive step that demonstrates follow-through on the Cairo address, analysts said Obama would ultimately be judged on his handling of the bigger issues in the Muslim world -- the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran's nuclear program, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In some ways Cairo is not going to be fulfilled until you get grander solutions to some of the big geopolitical problems, said Juan Zarate, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.
The president is going to be judged by his ability to move those big issues much more so than whether or not he hosts a conference at the White House, he said.
Obama has struggled to advance many of those issues. His effort to revive the Middle East peace process has been hampered by Israeli settlement activity, and his attempts to engage Iran over its nuclear program have been rebuffed.
The administration is pushing ahead with its strategy for the war in Afghanistan despite increasingly brittle relations with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai due to concerns about corruption in the Afghan government.
Administration officials point to Obama's responsible steps toward winding up the Iraq war, and his fulfillment of pledges made in the Cairo speech -- creating a fund to boost technological development, naming science envoys and now holding the entrepreneurship summit.
These things don't hurt. They're helpful, Zarate said. But I don't think we should be Pollyannaish about the grand impact or effect of these.
DAVOS CROWD AND MORE
The two-day entrepreneurial summit brings together a diverse group of people ages 20 to 79, everybody from ... the Davos crowd to people that are not traditionally invited to things like this, said one senior administration official.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and other senior U.S. officials will participate in sessions alongside private sector experts like Yahoo! chief executive Jerry Yang, Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus and Arif Naqvi, head of Abraaj Capital, the largest private equity firm in the Middle East.
The aim is to bring together successful business and social entrepreneurs from different countries, venture capitalists, development bankers and other business experts to discuss ideas and share experiences with a view toward creating support networks that will help promote development in the region.
The White House has urged groups outside the government to participate by organizing their own related events, and that has spawned more than 30 other sessions by such groups as the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, Arab Empowerment and the Middle East Youth Initiative at Brookings.
The focus on social entrepreneurship as well as business entrepreneurship is seen as particularly helpful because it appeals to young people interested in having an impact, and a large proportion of the Muslim world population is under 30.
The number one priority in the Middle East and North Africa must be job creation, said David Hamod, head of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce. This is a part of the world that has very high youth unemployment and when people don't have jobs, it's easy to get up to mischief.
But observers and participants say the success of the summit ultimately depends on whether it produces concrete results -- financial and otherwise -- after it ends.
What kind of networks does it establish? What kinds of funds will come out of it? What kind of ... concrete recommendations for legal reforms that need to take place in certain countries? said Ehaab Abdou of the Middle East Youth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, which is involved in a social entrepreneurship event.
Obama planned to announce some new financing to support entrepreneurship, but administration officials made clear the government wants to be seen not as a funder but as a catalyst bringing together entrepreneurs with potential investors.
That may leave the success of the summit largely in the hands of the people in attendance, and some participants see that as a good thing.
It puts responsibility on these summit delegates and on people in the community to not just sit back and watch things like the Cairo speech and say, 'OK, well what's Obama going to do next?' said Hazami Barmada of Arab Empowerment. It goes back to igniting that fire of, 'I can be part of figuring out how we can create a more sustainable, viable and healthier community and society.'
(Editing by Jackie Frank)