US President Barack Obama laid a key plank of his strategy to mend ties with the Islamic world on Monday hosting a summit to boost economic development in Muslim nations.
In a step the White House hopes will help shift relations beyond decades of talk about terrorism and conflict, Obama brought entrepreneurs from 50 countries to Washington for two days to spur economic ties.
The president pledged to host the meeting in a landmark speech in Cairo last June, when he also called for a “new beginning” to relations between the United States and the Muslim world.
Opening the meeting, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said boosting Muslim business would not only help the Islamic world, but would also help US security and trade.
“There are over a billion people living in Muslim-majority countries today, and they represent a vast reserve of under-utilized potential in the global economy,” Locke told delegates.
“It is very much in America’s — and indeed, the entire world’s — interest that you succeed.”
“Strong and balanced international trade only works if countries have growing economies and a growing middle class that are fully engaged in the international marketplace.”
Speaking ahead of the meeting, a senior administration official said there were also hard-headed political goals to the summit.
“One of the principal goals of that vision was to broaden our relationship, which has been dominated by a few different issues, a small set of issues, for at least the last decade, and going back further than that.”
“We don’t see this as a replacement for our work on things like Middle East peace or work on counter-terrorism, our work on Iran. We see this as part of establishing a more multifaceted set of relationships. It is yet another pillar.”
Around 250 entrepreneurs are attending the summit from countries across the Muslim world — where America’s image has been tarnished by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Obama is expected to discuss ways of improving access to capital, funding for technology innovation and exchange programs, as the United States tries to better its image in the eyes of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
The delegates range from a 20-year-old entrepreneur to established figures like Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, who won a Nobel prize for his work on small-scale lending.
As part of Obama’s plan, the United States is poised to award contracts through its multi-million-dollar Global Technology and Innovation Fund, designed to spur investments in the Muslim world.
The government-backed Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which is running the competition, has received a deluge of applications, which officials say is itself a sign of improving ties.
Each chunk of funding awarded by OPIC is expected to be worth between 25 and 150 million dollars.
US development agency USAID on Monday announced it was setting up 13 new partnerships to “nurture entrepreneurship.”
One of the projects involves setting up an investment fund that will leverage 250 million dollars to finance “micro, small and medium-size enterprises” in the Middle East and North Africa.
Polls show Obama has won plaudits across the globe since taking office in January 2009. But nearly a year on from his Cairo speech, Muslims remain deeply suspicious of the United States.
A recent BBC World Service poll of attitudes in 28 countries showed that Turks and Pakistanis still overwhelmingly believe the United States is a negative influence on the world.
The failure to broker a Middle East peace and still-bloody wars in Muslim countries loom large.
“This is a generational issue, this is something that is going to take time,” the administration official said.