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The Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah Foundation last month organised a seminar on the topic " Economic Liberalisation and the Developing World " in Paris ahead of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Cancun on September 11. The Vice President of the Foundation Sheik Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah who delivered the introductory remarks at the seminar gave this exclusive interview to Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, publisher and Editor in Chief, Expo Times.

EXPO TIMES : It's interesting to have your foundation organising such a big seminar in Paris just days ahead of the WTO ministerial conference in Cancun. How does organising such meetings fits into the aims and objectives of your foundation?

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : First let me give you a brief rundown of the origins of the foundation. The Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah Foundation was established on the will of my late father Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah in 1992 with empathises on social, education and health programmes within the Arab world, Islamic world and the developing world. We have had generally more than 105 programmes undertaken over the last ten years : community centres which include mosques, schools, social centres from the Maghreab to Mozambique through relief agencies in Kuwait which handle these programmes for us. In Egypt for example we help the Library at the University of Cairo. We provide assistance to human rights organisations. We help NGOs working in developing countries in the health and humanitarian sectors. We also provide assistance to Kuwaitis by sending them abroad for medical treatment for some serious diseases or surgical operations which they cannot readily get at home.

EXPO TIMES : What about in the field of eduction ? Considering the fact that low literacy rates have been behind the slow pace of development in most developing countries, what concrete programmes have your foundation undertaken to promote education in general in this part of the world?

 SHEIKH AL-SABAH : We 've been helping in this area in many ways : by giving scholarships to the youths in the Arab world and by sending some good students for further studies in Universities in America, Europe, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere to have professional and technical degrees. We are laying particular emphasis on education because we believe in the investment in human capital. It is not only raw materials that should count in developing countries. There is also the need for developing countries to become more competitive and efficient in participating in the global economic system.

EXPO TIMES : Apart from Kuwait, is there any other country in the Middle East, the Maghreab or Sub-saharan Africa for example where your foundation is also giving assistance in this sector, especially in the area of scholarships ?

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : Yes of course. We do that in Egypt and other parts of Africa as well as in Jordan. We also build schools and educational centres. We also link up with centres of educational excellence. For example in the United Kingdom we undertake the sponsoring of social academic chairs and fellowships in key universities such as Oxford, School of Oriental and African Studies and Surrey University for Oil Studies. We try to promote more of research and education towards issues which touch on the lives of all regions. We've been doing this for the past ten years and we still have ongoing fellowships on Islamic, research and development issues.

EXPO TIMES : What criteria do you consider in giving out these scholarships, fellowships and funds for specific projects. Do you have a committee with well defined structures taking care of this ?

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : Yes, we have a Board of Trustees ; and we have a structure looking at what projects deserve funding based on our criteria. We tend to try to spread ourselves geographically. We are not bound by region or by country. We are trying to do as much as we can, of course within our modest means (laughs). As you know we cannot do everything at the same time. With education, what we are also trying to do is building on cultural bondings. For example being part of the British-Kuwaiti Friendship Society, Dr. Souad Al-Sabah, my mother and chairman of the foundation, who is also a well known arab poet, writer in economics and female activist in the arab world, we provide funding for this society by sponsoring hosting of the annual book prize. We sponsor a book prize every year for the best book written on the Middle East to enhance more bridging between the two cultures. The book prize is mainly created to build foundations and , especially after September 11, it is important to show the Western world that the Arab world-the Middle East-is not only about terrorism but also about culture and education. And by hosting and sponsoring the annual book prize through the British-Kuwaiti Friendship Society, we want to build the cultural bridges and solidify the foundation.

EXPO TIMES : What type of book prizes do you offer ?

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : Prize is awarded to the best book published out of British publishers or from English language publishers from Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge Universities ‘presses. We produce about 40 books a year mainly on the arts, politics and about any on the Middle East. This we think contributes towards a better understanding of issues about the Middle East in the West. And also it is done in an academic format. There is a very well known book by Ahmed Rashid on the Taliban which, immediately before the September 11 terrorist attack on New York, was the second runner-up in our book prize. In fact we have the Souad Al-Sabah publishing house which is funded by the foundation, and of course the chairman of the foundation Dr. Souad Al-Sabah, who is running the publishing house, is a distinguished poet and author in the arab world with many published works to her credit.

EXPO TIMES : Is the publishing house a kind of profit making enterprise ? If so where do you put the money accruing from this venture ?

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : No the publishing house is not a profit making endeavour but tries to back the young arab writers and scholars in the arab world to produce more literature because there is less literature read in the arab world than any where in the world. That is too bad ; illiteracy rates are still high in the Arab world. The Publishing house has four categories of book prizes per annum for the arts and sciences. The publishing house's activities also include holding ceremonies in gratitude of the efforts of very distinguished arab scholars. For example the famous poet Nazab Albani is one of our prize holders ; he died two years (may the peace of Allah be upon his soul). Other winners of prizes include activists and writers from Maghreab to Bahrain, to Cairo, to Damascus ; to remember their good work during their life time. It is a way of paying them back for their good work in a modest way.

EXPO TIMES : What about the health sector ; the building of hospitals and providing essential drugs for people in need in developing countries.

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : Yes we are also actively involved in the health sector. In fact we are at the moment building a health clinic in Almahara in Southern Iraq ; although the political situation there is still not very good we have initiated that project through our partners. This is just one example of our pro-active health projects.

EXPO TIMES : And do you also support projects such as conferences and seminars on health and development issues ?

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : I've now expanded the scope to cover issues of political, economic and social concerns to the Middle East in particular, and to the developing world in general. And also to promote awareness on security and political issues. We organised a conference at the Royal United Service Institute in White Hall in the United Kingdom before the war in Iraq, and the key note speaker there was Rt. Hon.Michael Bryant, MP and Minister of State Foreign Affairs. The congregation was made up of distinguished diplomats, politicians, academics and journalists who wanted to discuss this critical issue, three days before the war. We were there to put forward our concerns to policy makers.

EXPO TIMES : So since that conference this is the second big meeting of this nature you have organised ?

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : No, we 've done many conferences and seminars of this nature, but much less so in the West, mainly in the Arab World…in Cairo, Damascus etc. In fact this is the first time we are organising a seminar in Paris. Why Paris ? Paris is an important centre ; is the heart of Europe ; and is culturally important with very distinguished mixture of people from all over the world with British, French and Arab participants as you saw today. And it is not very far from Brussels, the heart of the European Union.

EXPO TIMES : Coming back to this seminar in Paris today, what inspired your foundation to organise it ? It is like you are now moving towards much bigger organisations such as WTO since this meeting is like one of the curtain raisers of the upcoming meeting in Cancun.

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : We are not organising a function perse on WTO. We are looking at economic liberalisation in the developing world. WTO is not the issue we are discussing perse although as a multi-lateral organisation, it is a means to an end. But because of the critical timing of the conference just before the Cancun Ministerial Summit; hence the WTO signifies. Economic liberalisation can be done in two or three different ways : Either unilateral, bi-lateral, regional trading agencies or multi-lateral endeavours. If you look at the regional trading organisations in the Maghreab, the EEC or the EU in Europe or OPEC ; these are regional organisations which have functioned since the 80s and 90s. But these can also constitute hindrance to multinational organisations like the WTO. So bilateral relations have been occurring. Unilateral trade liberalisation has occurred from the Asian Tigers for example. Perhaps this is because need is the mother of innovation. One needs to take strong initiatives towards liberalising the economy. It can be done either : bottom-up (domestically) or top-down (multilateral organisations) or both at the same time. But if we don’t go through multi-lateral organisations, and if we don’t uni-laterally liberalise, we would become victims of huge regional trade associations like the EU which would dictate the terms, and not negotiate the terms through a legal framework but through a power politics framework.

EXPO TIMES : So you think trade is important to help countries of the developing world solve their problems ?

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : Of course trade is important as it impinges on the lives of every one, especially those in the developing world. We believe that if one can discuss such a central issue as trade, one can relieve our populations, or at least attempt to discuss important matters like trade which can potentially, with the right framework, with the right consensus, lead to the alleviation of poverty, the increase of living standards in the developing world. So that is the aim of the foundation-through backing issues related to trade and creating a forum of discussion between policy makers, between academics, between journalists, between politicians and diplomats, who can together discuss and find solutions to the problems of the global economy. In this way, elements of distrust, either south-south or north-south, would be minimised, if not completely eliminated to make way for greater co-operation. We should stop putting all the blame on external factors to our problems start to take care of our backyards. You have countries like South Africa for instance where they don’t have capital restrictions but you have others in Africa which have capital restrictions, which is not good for business because I cannot invest my money as I am not free to take it out afterwards. You can not say Africa, because Africa is not monolithic. Take the cases of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia in the Maghreab. Egypt is different from Libya because Libya has no foreign direct investment because of sanctions. But Tunisia is a very good example of an economically liberalised country which has its social values and at the same time has driven itself towards economic growth in a very sustainable manner, with a proficient work force, and also with an efficient economy.

EXPO TIMES : You think trade liberalisation is the only way out for developing countries ?

SHEIKH AL-SABAH : Pragmatic trade liberalisation because we cannot say about one side suits all policy because they are different from trade liberalisation. China for example remains a socialist country but embraces capitalist issues ; Japan is a developmental state, the country backs the big business through the bureaucracy, through the ministries and also protects these businesses by restricting imports-hence Japan's big trade surplus in the 80s. One cannot look at Singapore's difference from Malaysia, which is an islamic country and also a country which is export-driven. So every country is unique…So our foundation is aimed at sponsoring and organising seminars and conferences to debate these issues central to the fight against poverty, illiteracy and economic stagnation.