Conference on Middle East relations to be held here Wednesday
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As the revolution raged in Egypt in February, UPMC's international division was moving forward with plans to fly a contingent to Cairo and sign an agreement to consult on a government-run cancer center network there.
They abruptly had to cancel.
"We were a week away when Mubarak was ousted," Chuck Bogosta, president of UPMC's international and commercial services division, said, referring to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who was removed from power after 30 years. "And after he left, the health minister we had contacts with on that was ousted, too."
The contract has been in limbo ever since.
It was just one example of how the Arab Spring revolutions are being felt in Pittsburgh, home to many international companies that already have operations in the Middle East -- and many more that want to do business there.
The desire to do business in the Middle East and improve cultural relations between people there and in the Pittsburgh region in the post-9/11 world were the reasons the Pittsburgh Middle East Institute was formed four years ago.
But during PMEI's fourth annual conference being held Wednesday -- with daytime panels focused on doing business in Saudi Arabia and Oman and a nighttime speech by Henry Kissinger -- a more pressing concern is how to deal with the ongoing Arab Spring, which saw another ruler toppled last week with the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
How to broach such a difficult topic as the Arab Spring, and still be perceived as courteous hosts and answering the hard questions business officials will have, has proven to be a tough subject for the business institute -- particularly with Saudi Arabia officials coming after much wooing.
"We're going to try to address it," said Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, the institute's half-Iranian co-founder and president. "You can't avoid what questions are going to be asked."
But don't look for any panel topics with the phrase "Arab Spring" in them. Though there will be questions-and-answer periods after each panel, the sessions have more innocuous titles like "Oman: Discovering the Land of Progress," and "Kingdom of Opportunity: Doing Business in Saudi Arabia."
When the institute's board discussed the Arab Spring during a meeting earlier this year, the board wasn't sure what to do with the topic, said Mike Milone, an H.J. Heinz Co. executive vice president and board member.
"I wasn't sure if it would be addressed by us," said Mr. Milone, who oversees Heinz's Middle East operations. "Others are dealing with it."
Devesh Sharma wanted to sidestep the issue altogether.
"My recommendation is we don't want to bring it up much," said Mr. Sharma, managing director of Aquatech International, a global water treatment company based in Canonsburg. The company's CEO, Venkee Sharma, Devesh's brother, sits on the institute's board.
Devesh Sharma said that in his experience the Persian Gulf states in particular "don't want to talk about it, so, I'd actually steer clear of it. I'm not very inquisitive if it doesn't affect the business."
That's disappointing to hear for Middle Eastern scholars and organizations.
"Obviously, I think an open exchange of ideas is the best way to treat issues," said Kate Seelye, spokeswoman for the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., a think tank and policy center unrelated to the institute. "The Arab Spring is front and center in the discussions now. I don't know how you can ignore it."
Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who is a historian of the modern Middle East, agreed.
And she pointed out a conference like institute's would be the perfect forum to discuss such issues because "this would be the time to be nurturing contacts and endeavors for Americans in the Middle East."
Oman, which quelled an uprising by promising more jobs for its people, has been featured at the institute's conference before. But the conference's big coup this year was attracting a high-level delegation of officials from Saudi Arabia, which has had its own unrest this year, but figured more prominently in the Arab Spring by sending tanks and troops into neighboring Bahrain to help put down a revolution.
The Saudi delegation is led by Prince Turki Al Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, who will give the lunchtime speech Wednesday at the Downtown Fairmont Hotel. He currently teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., after spending 34 years as head of his country's General Intelligence Directorate, Saudi Arabia's main foreign intelligence service.
After the morning panels and lunchtime speech, the afternoon will be time for more personal visits, followed by an evening dinner, VIP reception, and an 8 p.m. speech by Mr. Kissinger at the Carnegie Music Hall.
"It will be interesting to get his perspective given what's going on there," said Mr. Bogosta.
Ms. Curtis said she expects packed attendance -- about 250 people at the morning sessions and a full house at Mr. Kissinger's speech at the music hall, which holds 2,000 people.
And while it might be difficult for PMEI to broach the Arab Spring, the institute has its own experience to talk about.
Earlier this year, after the uprising began in Egypt, the institute decided to cancel its Arabic language immersion program's visit to Cairo over the summer.
"We couldn't go this year because we didn't think we were going to get parents to let them go to Cairo like we did last year," Ms. Curtis said.
Ms. Curtis said what is going on now in the Middle East increases the role the institute plays.
"It's more important now than ever because people are scared of what's going on in the Middle East," she said.
Tickets for Mr. Kissinger's speech are still available at proartstickets.org or by calling 412-394-3353.
First Published October 24, 2011 12:25 am