A voice from the loudspeakers asked the 1,500 delegates attending the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Sharm el-Sheikh to remain seated as US President George Bush made his way to the stage.

Simultaneously, a small group of Gulf-state delegates rose from their seats close to the front of the hall and walked to the exit at the back of the room, in an apparent show of defiance against Bush and his Middle East policies. “It was pre-planned,” said one leading Bahraini banker. “He is the strongest man in the world. He is talking, making a point and expecting clapping.”

They were not the only delegates who missed the speech. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was also conspicuously absent. It seems the Egyptian leader decided to repay his American counterpart in kind. As Mubarak opened the World Economic Forum earlier in the day on 18 May, Bush was nowhere to be seen.

Imposing democracy

Despite the forum being designed to look to the future, both statesmen used their speeches to attack one another’s regimes with familiar criticisms from the past. Mubarak took the opportunity to criticise the US’ attempts to impose democracy on the region, saying such antics could only result in chaos and instability.

The subject of democracy also pervaded Bush’s address, which was laced with jibes against Arab regimes. While lauding Egypt’s progress on economic reform, he highlighted the need for parallel advances in the political sphere. “In order for this economic progress to result in permanent prosperity and an Egypt that reaches its full potential, however, economic reform must be accompanied by political reform,” said Bush.

Then came a direct attack on Mubarak. “Some say any state that holds an election is a democracy. But true democracy requires vigorous political parties allowed to engage in free and lively debate – Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail.”

Mubarak has been in office since 1981 and his regime has stifled political opposition in the country, incarcerating anyone perceived to pose a threat to his position. The statement did not go down well. It was not that the substance of what the US president said was wrong; the problem was one of resentment over US meddling in Arab affairs.

Among delegates, the general sentiment was that the World Economic Forum was not the right platform for the US to try to impose its rules on the Middle East. However, the theme of the forum was billed as ‘Learning from the Future’ to address uncertainty in the political, economic and social spheres, and the issue of future succession in Egypt is of particular concern to the international community.

At the forum, Mubarak appeared to be in good health. But with the leader now 80 years old, the government’s attempts to evade the subject of succession are growing futile. Even those close to the government acknowledge it is in the country’s interests to convey a clear message about what will happen after Hosni Mubarak.

“If they resolved this succession issue, it would provide a bit more stability for investors,” said one Cairo-based consultant who works closely with the Egyptian government on its economic reforms.

The president’s younger son, Gamal Mubarak, was also present in Sharm el-Sheikh. For years, Mubarak has been seen to be preparing Gamal to take over from him and create a new dynasty. Gamal, his wife Khadija el-Gamal and First Lady Suzanne Mubarak made their way around the forum venue with an entourage of assistants and body-guards. “They really are like the royal family,” said one Egyptian onlooker.

But there are those who believe Gamal’s time has passed. Without military backing and given the current state of heightened social tensions in Egypt, his accession to the presidency may no longer be possible.

With the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Egyptian presidency as a backdrop, the forum examined three scenarios for how the wider environment for business, politics and society could develop in the region between now and 2025. Under the ‘hyperlinked world’ scenario, advances in technology will result in lower communication costs and greater connections between people, governments and businesses. The ‘sustainable world’ scenario focused on the need for governments and businesses to adopt new policies on corporate global citizenship and sustainability to cope with a scarcity of natural resources. Finally, the ‘multipolar world’ scenario dealt with the emergence of new centres of power.

The sessions held under the three strands revealed much that governments and business leaders could do together.

A session entitled “How much water do you eat?”, for example, addressed the issue of water scarcity. According to the World Bank, in 2025, the number of people without adequate access to water will reach 1.4 billion. Increased private sector participation was put forward as one way to help, but Egypt’s Investment Minister Mahmoud Mohieldin also stressed the importance of better government policies to attract investment.

In relation to corporate social responsibility, the forum asked: “Does Arab business care?” While regional business leaders claimed they did, they also admitted progress was slow.

“In the Middle East, corporate social responsibility is still in its infancy, it is very much associated with giving through charitable donations,” said Mohammed Alshaya, executive chairman of Kuwait’s Alshaya Group. “There is much more we can do in partnership with governments and NGOs [non-governmental organisations] to tackle deeper issues like unemployment, lack of quality education and carbon-footprint reduction.”

By the third and final day of the event, many sweeping statements had been made. Education in the region will be essential to its continuing prosperity, said some. Greater co-operation between the public and private sectors should be encouraged, said others.

But even as the forum tried to focus on the future, existing long-term issues surfaced, not least the persistent instability in some parts of the region. “We can never ignore the importance of peace and stability for the Middle East to thrive,” said Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif in his closing speech. “The leadership must continue to work for peace and not be sidetracked in any way by those who would like to delay efforts for genuine peace, who might have a stake in instability and what comes with it.”

In particular, the Palestinian-Israeli problem entered almost every aspect of the forum. Bush and Jordan’s King Abdullah articulated their hope for a settlement in 2008.

“After years of delay, progress is possible,” said King Abdullah. “The Arab Peace Initiative has provided the foundation for a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians this year. And peace has global support.”

“Last year at Annapolis, we made a hopeful beginning towards a peace negotiation,” said Bush. “A peace agreement is in the Palestinians’ interests, it is in Israel’s interests, it is in Arab state’s interests, and it is in the world’s interests. And I firmly believe that with leadership and courage, we can reach that peace agreement this year.”

Shaky progress

The belief of the US administration is not widely shared among Arab delegates and the forum made clear that Middle East decision-makers have already cast Bush aside and are looking to the next US president to see what lies in store for them.

A session entitled ‘Iraq’s shaky progress’ brought Iraqi government officials together with US Republican Congressman Christopher Shays and Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman. The panellists discussed the merits of the three presidential hopefuls – John McCain, Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton – in relation to the future of Iraq.

On the sidelines of the forum, members of the Iraqi delegation made it clear that the country’s future will depend as much on support from its Arab neighbours as from the US.

“Iraq has now been invited to participate in this GCC meeting and this is a good opportunity,” said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. “We have the Arab League, the OIC, but this is different. This is closer. It gives us and them a better chance to appreciate the political development of Iraq. The image in the GCC was that this government was not even-handed and was influenced by Iran. I think this is changing, but very slowly.”

Despite his waning influence, Bush used his speech at the forum to articulate his vision for the region in 60 years’ time.

“From Cairo, Riyadh, Baghdad to Beirut, people will live in free and independent societies, where a desire for peace is reinforced by ties of diplomacy and tourism and trade,” he said. “Iran and Syria will be peaceful nations, where today’s oppression is a distant memory. Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas will be defeated, as Muslims across the region recognise the emptiness of terrorists’ vision.”

However, he added in an understated admission: “Realising this vision will not be easy.”

It was intended as a pledge of support, but for some of those who remained in the hall throughout his speech, the promise of any continuation of his policies in future US administrations will have sounded more like a threat.