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Published: Saturday, 9/20/2003

‘Endless Possibilities' for Detroit-area's Arab-Americans

DEARBORN, Mich.- Two years ago, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Detroit's Arab community was under siege, under a microscope, and torn from without and within.

For many, the issue was merely survival, and the way to do that, many thought, was to keep their heads down. The idea that they could counter perceptions by putting on a huge international conference would have seemed a mirage.

But that's exactly when and why the Arab-American Chamber of Commerce went to work. At the suggestion of the government of Bahrain, members threw themselves into planning a world-class international business conference. Nasser Beydoun, executive director of the chamber and a delegate to the Arab League, saw it as crucial.

“Our goal is to make this area a global leader, an international trade center, and to bring jobs to the region,” Mr. Beydoun said.

They knew that wouldn't happen if they brought together a collection of third assistant ministers and some professors. So from the start their goal was to get world leaders: Secretary of State Colin Powell. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister. Crown Prince Shaikh Sakman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, of Bahrain.

To their own community's amazement, they got them, along with a host of other Arab dignitaries and top American corporate and government leaders: Richard Wagoner, CEO of General Motors; Donald Evans, Secretary of Commerce, and the CEOs of companies like Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, Intel, Pepsi-Co., and others.

“How did we do it? Well, we asked. And then we asked again, often three times,” Mr. Beydoun chuckled.

But the Bush Administration is also keenly aware of the economic importance of the community and the region; the President has traveled to Dearborn, a city of less than 100,000 people, more than once since the attacks.

And so a galaxy of business and government leaders will all crowd into Detroit and Dearborn, the informal capital of the North American Arab world, for a three-day meeting beginning next Sunday, Sept. 28. The conference, which cost $3 million to stage, is called “One World. Two Cultures. Endless Possibilities,” and is designed, Mr. Beydoun said, to enable the policy leaders to put together an “action plan to enable a future rich with economic collaboration, cultural dialogue, and innovation.”

That may happen - but clearly, a lot of business and professional types are also coming for the time-honored purpose of networking and maybe doing a few deals. As of last week, 740 had signed up to pay the full price, $2,250, to attend the conference. Rubbernecking is a motivating factor also; some paid $450 just to attend a dinner with the heads of state; it isn't every day you can claim to have rubbed water glasses with a crown prince, after all. Most of all, this may be about breaking stereotypes.

“The United States does $55 billion in trade a year with Middle Eastern countries, and it isn't just about oil,” Mr. Beydoun said. He should know. When he took over the Arab chamber four years ago, it had barely 100 members and could not pay its bills. It has 1,100 members now, and the ability to do a conference of this scope.

That population, however, is virtually as diverse as the United States. It includes Shiites from Iraq who defiantly learn no English, and thoroughly Lebanese Christians whose families have been here for generations, don't speak a word of Arabic, and have taken pains to disassociate themselves from the Muslim world.

Mr. Beydoun hopes to bring them all together, and to make non-Arab Americans more comfortable living with and trading with the Middle East. That won't happen overnight, he knows. It will be many years before either community recovers from 9/11.

But he has converted one very prominent non-Arab; Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who enthusiastically threw himself into helping make the conference happen. When new mayors of Detroit take office, they have often gone abroad looking to snare investment and jobs. Some have gone to Germany; others to Japan. Mayor Kilpatrick thinks he sees a different future; his first trip was to Dubai.



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