Bridging businesses, bridging worlds

by Hiam Nawas
Washington, DC - Business has often been a catalyst for cultural blending and has proven capable of having profound effects on culturally or religiously dissonant societies. Overall, interactions resulting from commercial contacts have yielded positive results in the long run, leading to better understanding and, at times, acceptance of foreign cultures, customs and traditions.

The success of joint ventures (JVs) in cementing US-West European relations during the 1950s and 1960s such as KLM's partnership with Delta Air Lines demonstrates their positive potential among like-minded nations. These types of JVs strengthened already existing ties between the United States and Western Europe, and also gave greater impetus to NATO, which contributed to the decline of domestic Communist threats in a number of Western European countries, including France and Italy. While NATO was primarily military and anti-Soviet, it has often been argued that it also reinforced shared values and cultural traditions between member countries as well as US ideological influence.

More recently and in a more antagonistic context, Chinese-American JVs have played a key role in moderating long-standing ideological differences between the two superpowers, promoting a renewed relationship based on common interests: free trade and the success of the global economy. For example, companies such as Wal-Mart have been at the forefront of this geopolitical trend, providing ready markets for Chinese goods while influencing China's trade posture. Not only has it helped China tap new overseas markets, but American consumers have benefited from lower-priced Chinese goods.

There is also an often-ignored impact of JVs the influence they have had and continue to have on each other's societies. In essence, they are another vehicle for diplomacy and good relations. To be sure, JVs in and of themselves do not guarantee peace and stability, especially in situations where hostility runs high. They may, however, have the potential to humanise the "other" and contribute to bridging political differences when significant economic interests are at stake.

For example, while the underlying dynamics between countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the West (Western Europe and the US) have been very different from West European-US relations, JVs between Western and GCC countries have given them a stake in the welfare of US and European economies. This has mainly taken place through GCC direct and indirect investments in both economic powerhouses. Stability and economic prosperity in the West therefore equates with steady and healthy returns for GCC investments.

In more high-tech JVs, local capital is often combined with foreign technological know-how. One example of this is in the medical industry, where prominent centres such as the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and others have engaged in JVs with GCC countries and opened medical centres locally.

Another prime example of successful JVs rests in academia, where Jordanian and GCC universities have entered into exchange agreements with US and European institutions of higher education.

American universities have invested heavily in JVs in the Middle East, creating not only business channels but also a common educational experience for Western and Middle Eastern academic communities. The partnership between the Qatar Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University's (VCU) School of the Arts is a good example of how such a JV is offering students in the Gulf a rare opportunity to study Western approaches to design and fashion without having to leave their own countries.

VCU's JV with the Qatar Foundation, and other similar ventures with language centres around the Middle East, are creating fields of specialisation that would have otherwise been unavailable to local students, particularly in fields that are heavily populated with women, such as fine arts, theatre decor, fashion design, and nursing. These opportunities are especially important with regard to women's empowerment and the growth of a progressive and vibrant civil society, undoubtedly a couple of the major factors influencing the establishment of the democratic process.

While this cause-and-effect relationship might not be apparent nor provide for short-term gains, the long-term strategic value of JVs benefits both partner countries. JVs alone do not resolve complex political and strategic differences, but they do help enhance cooperation where the political will already exists.

An example of this has been the policies followed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has worked hard to become an international financial hub while attempting to navigate a difficult regional environment. This focus on business and trade has paid dividends, evidenced by the Dubai phenomenon, and has resulted in an increase in foreign direct investment and the relocation of several Western companies and individuals to Dubai. These business relationships have created new links between the UAE and its Western partners, building good will and a forum for ongoing communication.

Even in the very troubled waters of US-Iranian relations, business ventures could have possibly provided a small window of opportunity were it not for current US-imposed economic sanctions on Iran by bridging political and ideological gaps and by engaging individuals from both countries. Business interactions provide an opportunity for human contact and economic collaboration, despite the current lack of political will to engage in a real dialogue between the two countries.

Although JVs are not a short-term fix or cure-all for complex political and social issues, they have been shown to open doors between cultures and create human partnerships that can have lasting, positive impacts on relations between countries, even those in conflict, over the long-term.


* Hiam Nawas, a Jordanian American, has lived and worked in various countries in the Middle East and specialises in Middle Eastern Affairs and Islamic law. This article is part of a series on joint Muslim-Western business ventures and is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 27 November 2007,
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