My two cents on Middle Eastern politics

Below is the clip and transcript of a radio interview that I gave to Bloomberg Boston last week. It deals with my views on the Middle East, and TAKREEM’s place in the seemingly big mess that is our region. One thing that might stand out for you is my optimism. You might even call it a romanticization of our state of affairs. Yet, in this case, ignorance is not bliss. To know the region is to love it, is to believe in it. I hope that my interview here portrays that. Meanwhile, I look forward to hearing your comments!

Bill Frezza: We’re pleased to talk to Ricardo Karam, talking to us via Skype from Kuwait. Ricardo is the Charlie Rose of Lebanon, a long-time television host, producer and talk show host on a mission to change the Arab world. Ricardo, welcome to show.

Ricardo Karam: Thank you.

BF: Ricardo, I asked you on because there are so few voices of reason reaching America from the Arab world. Everyday the news reinforces stereotypes of Arab brutality. I’d like to open the conversation by reading a few sentences from a piece you wrote about the TAKREEM awards.

“The Arab world is bleeding.

It is time to say, enough is enough. Our sacred soil is saturated with the blood of too many innocent victims.
Is it not time to ask ourselves why we, as Arabs, cannot live in peace?
Is it not time to live in prosperity and joy like other developed nations?
Is it not time for us to stop killing one another in the name of religion, sectarianism and ethnicity?”
Ricardo, who are you and why are you on this mission?

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RK: It’s a very complex question. I think the answer won’t be very easy. But I’ll try to summarize it as much as I can. I’m a Lebanese citizen born in Venezuela, in South America, two opposite countries in the values they carry and in the politics they follow, and in the patterns compatriots usually adopt in their lives. Since I was first aware of what was happening around me, I witnessed wars. And I only witnessed wars and bleeding and people dying. In my long memory, I remember young people carrying coffins around me. So I’ve always dealt with that and I’ve always put a plan in my mind that I want to give hope to myself, and to give hope to the people around me, to trigger a change to the community I belong to.
BF: And Ricardo, your chosen path has been through media. First as a talk show host and then later with television.
RK: Everything was a twist of fate. I cannot say it was a stroke of luck. Because nothing in my academic background would have eventually put me where I am today. I was about to be a chemical engineer. This is what I studied. And I was so fond of music. I used to spend all of my pocket money buying LPs. At that time, we did not have CDs, if you recall well. And I was a radio broadcaster. I was 16-years-old and I loved the music world. I loved the radio world. I loved the contact, the live part with the audience. And the radio put me on a path I never thought I would be pursuing. I had an offer to do a TV show and I was 21 years old. The beginnings were awesome. I love those beginnings and I recall them very fondly. But they were primarily my school and they were my college. I pursued my college degree, but at the same time, I started doing those TV shows. TV became my life. Everything revolved around TV.

BF: You’ve built a pretty big following in the Middle East. Most of your shows are in Arabic so we haven’t seen many of them here. And along the way, you’ve interviewed all sorts of people and personalities from your region.

RK: Not only in the region. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve interviewed the Dalai Lama and Haram Salla, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. I’ve been to the states and interviewed so many people from Luciano Pavarotti to Mike Tyson to Celine Dion. I’ve been to Brazil where I met Paolo Coelho and Pele etc. So I’ve been all over and I’ve always been interested in human nature. I’ve always been tempted by this chemistry with the other. And I guess my studies in chemical engineering has enabled me to perform well, and to ignite a positive outcome and a prosperous chemistry with the other. So this is why the human being was my main target. And this is why I have met so many personalities from different backgrounds. And I owe them everything. Because I am what I am because of those encounters.

BF: Ricardo, let’s take that perspective and perhaps, go on a tour of the Middle East. Let’s start with Lebanon. Perhaps best known for exporting talented people escaping endemic political dysfunction. I just got back from a visit there, and in truth, Lebanon should be a paradise. Is the country cursed?

RK: I don’t believe in curses. I believe that people create a nation and build it up. And I guess the Lebanese, instead of being fully committed to their country, are spread over different communities they belong to.

We have in Lebanon 17 communities. Can you imagine? And each community follows its leader. Whether a political one or a religious one. And usually politics and religion are mixed up. There’s —I wouldn’t say an osmosis—but there’s a similarity. And they back up each other. So this is why people are scattered. They are divided. Everyone loves Lebanon, but they love it differently. So this is why there is this division that many people feel. If you go to the south of Lebanon, you experience a different pulse than you do in Beirut. It’s the same in Mount Lebanon or the Bekaa valley etc. So each part of Lebanon has its own specificity. This is the peculiar thing about Lebanon. This is the interesting part of Lebanon. Cursed? No, I disagree. We’ve been for years and decades a great platform for other Arab countries to fight each other.

BF: Proxy battles.

RK: Yeah, and with a lack of funding and bad economy in Lebanon, the political money that has always been injected in Lebanon to the different political parties has helped in igniting or reinforcing the civil war and the different battles in Lebanon. Now with what’s happening around us, we have no more money being injected. We have a war in Syria, Yemen, in Iraq…in Palestine, in Egypt. We have different parts of wars, if not persistent wars then partial wars. You’ve got explosions, you’ve got suicide bombers. We’ve got ISIS. You know, it’s a different era.

I don’t believe in curses. I believe that people create a nation and build it up. And I guess the Lebanese, instead of being fully committed to their country, they are spread over different communities they belong to.

BF: Let’s zero in on the current bleeding hot spot which is Syria. Aleppo was the most recent city to be reduced to rubble and despite half-baked ceasefire efforts, there appears to be no end in sight. Are there any paths open to peace in Syria?

RK:I don’t know if it’s only a civil war in Syria. I wonder if it is more an international decision to make this war happen and develop and not to end. We all wonder where those weapons are coming from. And who is taking part in that war.

Is Turkey part of it? Is Iran part of it? Is Russia part of it? Who is behind ISIS? Is there any decision to eradicate this fundamentalist movement. Did they really issue a decision to get rid of it. Do they want to reinforce it, to make it better? So this is why I beg to differ with you on the term Civil War in Syria. I don’t think the civil society or Syrians want this war to continue. I think this is a very big decision. Syria is at the heart of the Arab world and by destabilizing Syria, you are completely dysfunctioning the balance of the Arab world.

BF: So the people there are more like pawns in the great game.

RK: Definitely.

BF: Saudi Arabia’s clearly one of the key players in the region. And along with oil, Saudi Arabia’s main export is Wahhabism, said to be part of a year the ruling family made years ago to consolidate its power. Is this likely to change as power passes down to Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman?

RK: I strongly believe that Mohamad bin Salman is embracing the future. He is a very promising prince. And the changes that have been implemented within less than a year are tremendous. The beginnings were so fearful. And everybody was skeptical. This is my own opinion but I think he is projecting the country into the next 20, 30 or 100 years. The young prince is a very promising one.A very smart guy and I commend him on what he is doing. I have full confidence in the new era that is coming now in the KSA.

I strongly believe that Mohamad bin Salman is embracing the future. He is a very promising prince. And the changes that have been implemented within less than a year are tremendous.

BF: There’s a lot of talk of diversifying the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil, using its massive sovereign wealth fund. Does this risk turning Saudi Arabia into a rentier state with the rest of the populace depending on welfare?

RK: KSA cannot remain as it is. KSA should definitely look beyond the oil they have. They have to look at the future and they have to take with them the many Arab countries that are under their umbrella. We should not forget that especially the Levant region’s populations work in Saudi Arabia. They work in the Gulf but especially in Saudi Arabia. It’s a rich country and it has to remain as such. And by taking it 20 years ahead they are taking with them all those small countries living on the support of Saudi Arabia. Levantines have got no gas. No oil. No natural resources. The only they have is their minds. Their spirit. Their willpower. And the willingness to be productive. The Gulf is a great platform for that. I’m not afraid, on the contrary. I think that the coming years are going to be really optimistic and prosperous for the whole region. I need to reiterate, these are personal opinions.

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BF: Ricardo, one of the biggest success stories of the Middle East has got to be Dubai. Sheikh Mohamad Bin Rashid al Maktoum has been described as the region’s most enlightened despot. The economic miracle he’s pulled off in Dubai, pursuing a policy of free trade, low taxes and English commercial law is obvious for everyone to see. How relevant is that model for other Arab countries?

RK: Dubai is not only a model for other Arab countries. Dubai is a model for the whole world. Imagine creating a paradise in a desert, where people come from all over. People now are coming from Switzerland, Germany, UK, France, USA, Russia, and several parts of the world. They come, they settle, they make businesses. Sheikh Mohamad along with a professional team of experts, have created a remarkable model. They have made the lives of 100s of thousands of people easy. Dubai’s airport has more traffic than Heathrow airport. Can you believe that? People love to be there. It’s a safe place. And their services are remarkable. And everybody enjoys what he or she does.

BF: Did Lebanon miss its chance to become Dubai?

RK: I think Lebanon is different from Dubai. Two different identities. Two different histories. And two different platforms. What Dubai is, Lebanon cannot be. What Lebanon is, Dubai cannot be. A long time ago, the former Lebanese President Amine Gemayel said, “Give us peace, and we will surprise the whole world.” Give us peace, and I think Lebanon will do miracles. Lebanese all over the world have transcended and been remarkably acclaimed on all levels. Humanitarian, social, economic, environmental, scientific… They have always been in top positions in different organisations and companies and hospitals etc. Imagine if we had peace and were using those different human resources to make out of our country a paradise. And we can do it.

I don’t know if it’s only a civil war in Syria. I wonder if it is more an international decision to make this war happen and develop and not to end. We all wonder where those weapons are coming from. And who is taking part in that war.

BF: Peace in the Middle East requires an accommodation with Iran, and of course, Iran isn’t an Arab country, it’s a Persian country, with a history and culture that’s very different. If you look back, Iran was once a paragon of Western values before Ayatollah Khomeini took power. Do you ever see Western values returning to Iran?

RK: I’ve been to Iran and I believe that the life patterns in every home is a Western pattern. Forget about what you see outside. This applies to Saudi Arabia and to different Arab countries, where what you see is women wearing chadors etc but you go inside and you see people living the way you live, the way I live. Iran is a beautiful country. Of course, whenever there is a change in the regime, there is a transition period. And I believe that reform will be implemented soon. And in the coming ten years, we will be witnessing a new Iran. Maybe, better than before. Maybe not like before. But of course, not like the Iran of today.

BF: Your optimism, of course, I hope becomes infectious. A country that can certainly use it is Egypt. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country. The Arab Spring fizzled out there, leaving only a corrupt military junta behind. Must Egypt always be ruled by tyrants or is there an alternative?

RK: I disagree with you. Egypt has not been run by totalitarian regimes. Even under the regimes of Mohamad Hosni Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt has always been a democracy. People have always said whatever they wanted. There was a freedom of the press and media. And people demonstrate. They say whatever they want to say. And actually, they were the ones who triggered a change in the regime. What makes Egypt different is this cohesion between the different communities when it comes to their country. You forget about Sunnah and about Coptic Christians. They all glue together for the sake of keeping their country united. This is what has changed Egypt, because if it had deteriorated, I guess that it would have been one of the biggest civil wars in history. But look, of course, we’ve seen hundreds killed and thousands injured. A lot of demonstrations and strikes were happening. But Egypt was saved. I believe that now, under the leadership of Sisi, even if not a lot of changes are being implemented, what matters is that safety is here, security is here, and I am optimistic. I don’t know why! I’m optimistic about the different parts of the Arab world, unlike many people who are seeing the worst happening. I guess you could say it’s an organised chaos. But this organised chaos will trigger stability in the future.

BF: Speaking of an opportunity for optimism, we look back at the three great Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They all share the same jealous and vengeful God of the Old Testament. All three have a history of violence. Yet only Islam has yet to experience a reformation,

RK: This is a very tough and complex question. I don’t know. I don’t know for how long the religion will continue ruling politics and leading political patterns in the different Islamic countries. I truly hope that religion and politics will separate. Because if religion continues to be involved in politics, then we will remain where we are, and things will continue to be stagnant and latent. I believe that God gives believers the power. And I believe that courage is not the absence of fear, but a triumph over that fear. The three religions all want peace. They all want to live in a prosperous environment. In a healthy one. I am optimistic, and I want my kids to grow up and live in the Middle East and not to have to leave. We are French, we have French citizenship, we have a house in Paris. This is not the issue. We want to live in Beirut and this is what anybody says: whether they are Saudi, Emiratis, Palestinians, Jordanians…they are want to live in their respective home countries. I pray everyday that politics will be spared from religion. If this is the case, I think the future will be a positive one.

BF: Ricardo, you’ve focused on highlighting the successes of entrepreneurs and other leaders in the Arab world. Tell us about the TAKREEM awards.

RK: As you’ve mentioned in your introduction, in the last two decades, I’ve witnessed events that have tarnished the image of the Arab world. I was the first one on TV to introduce the success stories spread all over the world. People got to know Nicholas Hayek, the guy who initiated the Swatch Watch. They got to know Paul Orfalea the guy who founded Kinkos. People got to know Zaha Hadid, the famous architect, through my TV shows. And I always believed that I could create a platform that would be more sustainable. So in 2010, an idea stemmed out of my TV shows. And that idea was TAKREEM.

TAKREEM was established with a fundamental perseverance to counteract these sensitivities and to change the region’s misconceptions by exposing to the outside world different areas of talent. So, every year we try to spot different achievers from different fields, and we try to give hope to the youth by telling that youth, look at these examples. You can make it as well. We are nurturing them with hope. I believe that we must all commit to finding solutions and these cannot always be military and security solutions. TAKREEM is an inspirational model to encourage new generations, and to portray a positive image of the Arab world. I want to have a Lebanese passport and to be able to travel and to go from one airport to another without being looked at as being from a third world country’s citizen. I want people to look at me as a normal human being. Because I’m like you. We share a lot of similarities. And we definitely have a lot of differences. I hope that this platform will reach its goals, will grow, and will attain the objectives I have set since the beginning.

TAKREEM is an inspirational model to encourage new generations, and to portray a positive image of the Arab world.