Nearly one year after President Obama called for a “new beginning” in relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world, the White House is convening a two-day summit on entrepreneurship Monday it hopes will promote business ties abroad - even in those countries where political ties are rocky.
More than 250 participants from about 60 countries will attend the event, which will feature remarks by Mr. Obama and senior Cabinet officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Attendees include entrepreneurs, investors, academics and others from nations as diverse as Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait and Israel.
The summit is part of a promise Mr. Obama made in a speech at Cairo University last June, in which he identified economic development as a source of potential partnership between the U.S. and the Muslim world. Since that time, administration officials say American embassies overseas have reached out to students, business leaders and others about how the nation can assist aspiring entrepreneurs.
“We believe entrepreneurship is a fundamental American value; it’s also a force that has the ability to unlock opportunity for people around the world,” said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
One of the guiding ideas behind the summit, which will be co-hosted by the departments of Commerce and State at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, is that successful entrepreneurs will breed job creation and community development in their home countries. While not every attendee will be from a Muslim nation, that’s certainly a key focus.
“It’s particularly important for the United States to forge strong trade and commercial ties with Muslim-majority countries, and in fact, we already do have strong ties,” said Francisco Sanchez, undersecretary for international trade at the Commerce Department. Mr. Sanchez noted that total trade between the U.S. and such countries exceeded $360 billion in 2008.
Mr. Obama has made outreach to the Muslim world a cornerstone of his foreign policy. In addition to delivering the landmark speech in Cairo, he has sought to extend an olive branch to people in nations critical of the U.S., such as Iran, recently wishing Iranians a happy Persian New Year in a video on the White House website, for example. He and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. have also taken a tough stance on the building of new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, an issue important to the Palestinians and many Arab countries.
But Mr. Obama has also taken steps that irk many in the Muslim world, such as ordering a surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and pressing for tougher economic sanctions on Iran.
In his speech to Arab students last year, Mr. Obama was conciliatory on several fronts - criticizing the war in Iraq, bemoaning a history of colonialism that undermined Muslim populations - and noted that America is not at war with Islam, but rather, violent extremists. He noted the two worlds may not always see eye to eye, but called for partnering on issues of mutual benefit, such as economic development, education and technology.
Mr. Rhodes described the summit as “part of a very long-term program” of partnering with such countries to promote mutually beneficial entrepreneurship.
Breakout sessions at the summit will range from access to capital to empowering female entrepreneurs, officials said.