And so it was at the International Advertising Association's 40th World Congress in Dubai-until the president of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce got up to lecture delegates on how the West demands that the Arab world "replicate Western ways."
The speaker, Obaid Humaid Al Tayer, is a man of many interests. In addition to the Chamber post, Mr. Al Tayer is managing director of the company that publishes the English-language Gulf News as well as partner and editor in chief of Motivate Publishing. He also runs Al Tayer Group, with activities in 20 companies such as luxury goods and autos.
The gist of his message seemed to be that the West was lumping all Arabs into one boat. After Sept. 11, 2001, he said, the West depicted the Arab world as an "untrustworthy society." Because of 18 hijackers, the West "pointed their fingers at 300 million Arabs," he said, even thought the hijackers came from training grounds in Afghanistan that the West supported.
Mr. Al Tayer drew applause when he said the Western media have created an image of an Arab as "womanizer, greedy, corrupt, lazy, illiterate, rich, anti-Semitic and male chauvinist." He asked whether the West "has something against Arab people."
Motivate Publishing put out the Congress Daily, and Mr. Al Tayer's speech was the lead story the next day, with a half-page picture and the headline, "Obaid Al Tayer challenges for change." The theme of the Congress was "Challenges of change." Steve Forbes, another speaker, had a brief story on an inside page.
There's an old saying that you don't pick a fight with the man who buys ink by the barrel, and it's not my intention to do so here. But I am very uneasy when one person has the power and authority to make political and inflammatory remarks at an ad forum, and then to have control of the medium where it's disseminated. Did the IAA hierarchy concur in the decision to splash his talk (written in a stilted, third-person format) all over the front page of their own publication?
More to my liking was the speech by the woman who introduced coffee bars to the U.K. She talked about entrepreneurship and creativity, and I can't help but wonder whether Mr. Al Tayer thinks these are two attributes the West is forcing on the Arab world?
Sahar Hashemi, who co-founded Coffee Republic, believes passionately that "everyone has creativity-they just have to let it out." When she started out in business she was a lawyer. It didn't take long before she realized she'd made the wrong job choice. She's optimistic and enthusiastic, "two of the most superfluous qualities for a lawyer."
Ms. Hashemi bailed out of her own company when it took on a different character. "We'd gone from the kitchen table all the way back to the boardroom table. But systems and controls are the enemy of creativity. There was a corporate traffic jam every time you wanted to do something."
That's the feeling I got when I listened to Mr. Al Tayer. He is angry that the West views Arabs in a stereotypical way, but he does the same thing to us, lumping the U.S. and Europe together as one monolithic voice disapproving of every Arab action.
Yet Dubai itself is the envy of the West, and Mr. Al Tayer urged Arabs "to have the courage to say yes and learn from Dubai."
He said Arab leaders need to meet twice a year, although he said they've been meeting together for 40 years without any tangible results. "Time is running out for the region and changes so far are neither fast nor big enough," Mr. Al Tayer told his audience.