Eyad Abu Shakra – Asharq Al-Awsat
The attention of the Middle East’s observers was divided during the last few days between two conferences of important consequences for the region; Warsaw’s International Conference called by the US and hosted by Poland, and the Sochi meeting of the “triumvirate” behind the Astana initiative on Syria, meaning Russia, Iran and Turkey.
The Warsaw Conference, attended by more than 60 countries, was intended to discuss Iran’s escalating threat to most of its Middle East participants, while the Sochi event aimed at moving forward with the three-states “tactical” alliance that is based mainly on exploiting Washington’s inadequate handling of the region’s crises, and both strategic and transient issues affecting the interest of the Russians, Iranians and Turks.
In fact, those two events almost overshadowed everything else in the region, except for the Dubai-hosted the World Government Summit. The Summit was attended by hundreds of leading political, economic, scientific and media personalities, and discussed among other topics, the role of governments in the age of artificial intelligence.
For three days, current and former presidents, prime ministers, ministers, heads of international organizations, academics and experts in various fields took part in panel discussions, lectures and roundtable seminars. Given the number of participants and programmed sessions, it was impossible to attend every event, so those attending had the opportunity to pick and choose their favorites.
Still, among what interested me the most in one of the opening sessions was an expose about the huge growth in the private sector’s investment in research and development compared with that of governments (or the public sector) in many developed countries, led by the US. Amazon, for example, invests more than budgets of major countries.
In another lecture, the topic was the role and future of the media in the age of AI (artificial intelligence) and whether it is going to eliminate the role of columnists and opinion writers in the foreseen future.
Many lectures and sessions ended on a positive note, promising brilliant remedies and solutions. Others, however, expressed concerned as they opened the floodgates to the unknown, which we, as humans, are entitled to fear or treat with caution.
Are we approaching the end of a road of what people – let alone governments – can and will still function under the huge weight of AI? Are we about to lose privacy forever, as many say? Are we soon reaching a stage whereby those who possess the AI’s technical power would think on our behalf; but – either magnanimously or by subterfuge – convince us that we are the ones still thinking?
Are what we would come up with, truly, our own ideas and decisions, or are they the custom-made programmed data, interests and preferences that they have been injecting in us, based on the comprehensive, individualized “profiles” they have built?!
What I have mentioned was just a few examples of the mind-invigorating and soul-searching items during that successful Summit.
However, soon after arriving back in London, a dear relative sent me via WhatsApp a video presentation by Denise Hearn, the co-author of “Myth of Capitalism” (with Jonathan Tapper). In this widespread video, Hearn talks about the “withering away” of the American dream as a result of retreating competition and rapid consolidation, meaning capitalism in America, has become its own victim. Unchecked take-overs and unrestricted and unregulated mergers and acquisitions mean that price-fixing is a fatal threat to American capitalism.
Hearn noted that the success of Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left is a clear reflection of how the public see the situation, as 71 percent of Americans now believe that their economic system is “rigged”. She then added that the US has moved from a free market economy based on open competition to a narrow field in which few giant corporations enjoy a virtual monopoly in vital sectors in the economy.
Citing examples, Hearn mentioned that two groups control 90 percent of beer Americans drink, four airlines dominate air traffic, five banks have more than half the banking assets, Google controls 90 percent of online searches and Facebook controls over 70 percent of social networking searches. These facts point out to the end of competitiveness without which capitalism dies, she concludes. She explains that this phenomenon of “concentration”, indeed, exists not only in the aforementioned sector, but in most of the US economy where a small number of big players dominate the scene, take over smaller competitors without acquisitions and mergers’ government guidelines. This “concentration”, leaves the big players to fix prices without anti-trust intervention or regulation, which, in turn deprives capitalism of all of its virtues.
Actually, I have been thinking about this scenario for some time, linking it with globalization, which a couple of decades ago seemed to be an unstoppable force, before leading businessmen began to express their doubts and worries about the future.
Here, I recall what British businessman, Sir James Goldsmith, once claimed in a TV interview, that the nation-state had become the “last bastion” in the face of globalization. It did not take a long time before the resurrection of nationalist opposition in Europe, taking the shape of rebellion against the idea of the European Union, eventually, leading to Brexit in the UK and the rise of the populist and quasi-racist anti-immigration right throughout Europe.
Even countries that were built on immigration, such as the US, Brazil and Australia, joined the queue and revolted against immigration, not forgetting that in the American case, a separating wall is being built on the borders with Mexico.
For those in the Arab world who are still living on the illusions of the past, it is time to wake up and take a look. This is the real world around you. It is in trouble, deeply doubting itself, its interests and its future. Its animosities, just like its friendships, are short-term and interest-based.
For those who are unwilling to admit it, Moscow is the “capital of Socialism” no more, just as America is no longer the “promised land” for immigrants or the shining example of competitive Capitalism.
Today, both Turkey and Iran raise Islamist banners, but are striving to fulfill imperialist dreams. As for Israel, which has managed for decades to convince the world that it was the “Oasis of Democracy” in “the Arab’s barren desert”, its generals and biblical settlers use ballot boxes as weapons!