Your Highness Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak, Your Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mubarak, Your Highnesses, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
A question for you – and I hope you’ve had your coffee!
Why are we here? And I don’t mean here at the conference, or in Abu Dhabi – who would pass up the opportunity to visit this city; a capital that shines the light of hope and progress on the region?
I mean … why are we here in this world?
Don’t worry; I don’t expect an answer right away. After all, it’s a question that’s plagued the minds of philosophers, scientists and ordinary humans for centuries.
Are we here to make the world a better place? To leave the next generation healthier and happier than the last? To love one another… worship… and do good? Perhaps all of the above, and more.
Regardless of our purpose, it’s clear that we all share a common need. It’s a need with which we’re born…and it’s a need that’s endured through the ages.
It’s simply this: the desire to author and tell our own story. From the earliest days of life, we inherently want to be understood. And we believe that our story deserves to be told -- and listened to.
The tech revolution of recent years has transformed how that happens.
If I was to ask you if you belong to some form of social media network, I’m sure a sea of arms would shoot up faster than they would in the hardest of hard rock concerts. Because being on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – or any of their cyber sibling platforms -- has become second nature to almost all of us.
Be honest -- how many of you check your phone when you first wake up or as you’re walking down the street? How many of you feel like you’ve lost a limb if you misplace it or, woe betide, the battery dies?
Checking our timeline or liking a post now belong in the special category of activities that we perform several times a day instinctively but not entirely consciously. Like when we chew gum …or brush our teeth…or lecture our kids!
But just for a minute, flex your fingers, set them free. And ask yourselves: why are we so enthralled by social media? Is it because we want to make friends and be popular? Learn more about the world? Engage in philanthropic activities?
Maybe it’s all of the above.
First and foremost, I believe, it’s because these technologies enable us to fulfill that primal need to narrate our story.
They feed that hunger to communicate our uniqueness to the world. They quench our thirst to be heard and understood. They allow us to believe that we can shape and control how we’re reflected in our communities, and the world at large.
One of the things we hold most dear is the right to author our own narrative. So, it goes without saying that an infringement or violation of that right would leave us indignant.
Even before words, that narrative, your narrative, starts with a profile picture. Imagine if you were a professional who was meticulous about your appearance. And you woke up one day to find this as your profile pic?
Or if you prided yourself on being the biggest fitness buff around. And you found this as your profile pic?
Or you considered yourself to be the finest connoisseur of haute cuisine. And someone changed your profile pic to this?
Now, what if we had a profile picture for the Arab world. What would it look like?
Sadly in the minds of many, it would look like this.
Imagine. The rich and ancient cultures of 22 countries …the cosmopolitan character of over 350 million people…the diverse heritage of these historic lands…and, worst of all, Islam, a religion of peace, tolerance and mercy…reduced to this.
That’s what ISIS is doing to the Arab world -- and all of us. A minority of irreligious extremists is using social media to rewrite our narrative… hijack our identity and rebrand us.
Ladies and gentlemen… This is their version of the Arab World story. Their plot. Their narrative. Their heros. And the rest of the world is listening and watching.
These images don’t represent me anymore than they represent you. They’re alien and abhorrent to the vast majority of Arabs -- Muslims and Christians. And they should make every Arab across this region seethe. Because they’re an attack on our values as a people. And on our collective story.
But we – the moderate majority - are equally to blame. They say, “a story is told as much by silence as by speech”. Well, our silence speaks volumes. We are complicit in their success.
If ever there was a time to tap into that indignation…and channel that instinct to explain ourselves and be understood, it is now.
It is now. Because what’s at stake is not only our own story but of how we’ll be portrayed in the world at large.
We have a fight on our hands.
Part of that fight is literally on the battleground. Hence the coalition of forces protecting the innocent and thwarting ISIS. But that coalition must be broader and more inclusive. Because this is a fight between moderates and extremists the world over. And it might be a long, hard slog but it’s a fight for the future of Islam and the future of the Arab world. So, it’s a fight we have to win.
Winning also depends on our ability to conquer the philosophical battleground as well. Because at the heart of this assault is an ideology. And if you think we can defeat an ideology with a bullet, think of what happened when Osama bin Laden was killed. Sure he died. But his legacy was an even stronger, more twisted extremist movement.
We need to ask ourselves some tough questions.
From where, for example, did so many brutal radicals appear? And their followers and fans?
From classrooms in which they were never challenged to think for themselves …and where they learned an outdated curriculum. From societies in which a quarter of their peers is unemployed… where there’s inadequate social security to afford a life of dignity…and where opportunities to help to change the status quo are few and far between.
Is it any wonder, then, that they feel disaffected and disenfranchised? Is it any wonder that they seek out others who sympathise with their plight? And turn to an organisation that promises them purpose, fulfillment, a sense of identity and competitive salaries!? Where the entry level qualification is hopelessness…and the career path looks like the set of a Hollywood movie.
How do we compete with that and save our youth from the Sirens’ call of extremism?
We give them a better alternative. The satisfaction of a job. The relief of justice. The solidarity of equality. And the fulfillment of participation. We provide real opportunities for change and advancement. And we all play a role in making that happen.
Especially the media. Traditional and online. You’re our not-so-secret weapon in this fight. Because our silence is the greatest gift we can give to ISIS. We need you to give voice to the coalition of moderates all over the world. Let their message be heard.
The choice before us all is clear. We either develop our region… or we let others dismantle it. Find solutions to the challenges… or watch the challenges avalanche. Harness the tools to drive the Arab world forward in the 21st century…or let others use those tools to drag us back to the dark ages.
And I’m not talking about stop-gap measures. If we don’t remedy the root causes of this discontent, any success on the battleground will be short-lived.
Our strategy must be long-term.
And that starts by investing in quality education for all. Training teachers. Wiring and modernizing schools. Updating curricula. Because a good education could be the difference between your life being narrated as a forgettable blurb… or a classic that’s referenced long after you're gone.
And let me emphasize one point. When I said, “quality education for all”, I meant girls as well as boys. Because educated girls strengthen their nations’ economies…they prioritize the health and education of their own children…and they help to build stable societies more resilient to radicalization. Why else would Boko Haram…the Taliban…and ISIS be so afraid of them – girls with books?
This scale of education reform doesn't come cheap. But the price of ignorance, clear for all to see in deserted Iraqi towns and Syrian villages, is far, far greater. Collectively, we have the resources. We can afford education reform -- especially if we tap into existing networks and create new ones.
For example, in May, I launched EDRAAK – an initiative to bring Massive Open Online Courses to the Arab world in Arabic.
Thanks to His Highness General Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and edX, a Harvard-MIT consortium, EDRAAK fills a learning gap for our region’s intellectually hungry youth. It brings free, flexible university level courses to thousands of young people.
This technology excites me because transformative shifts tend to happen when need and opportunity meet. Our region desperately needs quality, modern education. Online learning is our opportunity to achieve it.
But education alone isn’t the solution. We need jobs as well. Recent estimates indicate that we need to create over 100 million jobs by 2020 to absorb new entrants into the labor market.
That’s a daunting figure. But the good news is that new industries are emerging. The digital landscape is evolving. And internet connectivity and mobile technologies are creating new horizons for entrepreneurs. Arab internet users are growing at around 20 per cent annually. Mobile penetration at around 110 per cent – higher than global averages.
At the same time, the consumer market is large and voracious. E-commerce is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. The Middle East ICT sector is set to hit $20 billion by 2020. By which time, the World Bank predicts that 20 per cent of the region’s labour market will be related to internet and technology industries.
Silicon Valley and other global tech giants know that the Middle East is one of the most exciting emerging markets around. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, and most major mobile players, have expanded operations in the region.
A burgeoning technology sector. An insatiable consumer market. And a huge youth population hungry for opportunity. The conditions for explosive growth are within reach.
Ladies and gentlemen, as a region we have the values…the money…the minds…the youth…the technology…the market…the networks…and God knows we have the motivation like never before to tap into these reserves and create lasting change.
We can spend our lives letting others dictate our narrative… and cast ourselves as the victims. Or we can realize the truth: that we are the creators of our own story.
For the sake of each one of us…for Islam and the Arab world…for the future of our young people, we must create a new narrative and broadcast it to the world. Because if we don’t decide what our identity is…and what our legacy will be, the extremists will do it for us.
If we don’t author our story, theirs will endure.
So, let’s start now. Post your profile picture of our Arab world.
Here’s mine. #OurArabWorld
Thank you very much.
Speech from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUmC43iRwHQ.