The United States faces a perception gap in the Middle East and there is no more poignant example of this problem than in Egypt. Muddled messaging, a lack of people to people contact between the U.S. and Egyptians, and the ability of the Egyptian population to self-select partisan news sources only exacerbate this problem. In a world where we have the means to be more connected than ever, our knowledge of one another remains limited.
Proper and effective communication through direct contact leads to clarity, to cooperation and, ideally, to calm consensus even if it is not perfect. Most importantly, such communication avoids misperceptions upon which wrong and costly decisions may be taken.
While we are living in a world of 24/7 communication via emails, Twitter, Skype and social media, the key question is, in a wotld of the sound bite and photo op, do we really understand each other.
In 2012 my family’s foundation established a new fellowship with the goal to increase understanding between emerging young leaders of the Middle East and the U.S. through personal communication, shared experiences, exchange of ideas, and collaborative projects. Forty Egyptian and American professionals in the areas of art, science, law, media and business and entrepreneurship were selected. They traveled to Egypt and to the U.S., seeing first-hand – and for the first time – all aspects of the other’s society.
Through this fellowship, they engaged in educational and cultural activities, working jointly on solutions to social challenges faced by both countries by undertaking collaborative projects and, along the way, changing misperceptions.
Visionary and effective leaders understand this importance. They meet with their peers from other nations, form relationships that often produce results based on the trust developed in face-to-face dialogue and the realization of shared experiences and shared vision.
This fellowship is testimony to the adage that we can change the world by starting in our own neighborhoods. To close these gaps in understanding, new, innovative and non-traditional platforms for face-to-face communication are needed – perhaps more now than at any other time in modern history We must augment traditional government-to-government diplomacy and encourage citizens, businesses, and cultural institutions to play a stronger role in enhancing understanding around the world. The international business community can, and should, take the lead by creating and supporting programs that help to build bridges between cultures through interpersonal dialogue, much like we did
Small, inspired groups of individuals often influence the path of the world. For each participant who comes away from personal communication, idea exchanges and the realization of shared visions with a more open mind and heart, a ripple effect will be created that will have a lasting impact extending well beyond the term of the program. The dialogues in such programs are small compared to the millions of people living in these regions, yet their importance is gigantic.
Business has no reason to balk at sharing its skills in finding where its communications paths can open. Along with social development and corporate responsibility, bridge building to better understanding is also a good investment for business. Companies doing business in the Middle East in particular would be wise to invest in programs that encourage better knowledge and understanding of East and West among their employees, communities, and societies.
Communication is not a panacea for all our ills. It is, however, a necessity. Genuine and honest differences exist within and between societies. Discussion with face-to-face engagement and understanding each other's culture is one ingredient that cannot be absent in any effort to find common ground and begin to build a solution to avoid confrontation and conflict.
What is certain is that no such solutions will come without communication. Creating more opportunities for real face-to-face dialogue and shared experience will go a distance in healing rifts and increasing cooperation, trust, and mutual respect between East and West. The business community has the skills, the positions and the fortitude to play a critical role in achieving these objectives. It should not wait any longer.
Gabr is chairman and managing director of the ARTOC Group for Investment & Development and founder of the Shafik Gabr Foundation. He is a recipient of the Foreign Policy Association’s award for corporate responsibility.