Obama to host Muslim leaders

2010-04-26 15:20

Washington - US President Barack Obama will lay a key plank of his strategy to mend ties with the Islamic world on Monday when he hosts a summit to boost economic development in Muslim nations.

In a step the White House hopes will help shift relations beyond decades of talk about terrorism and conflict, Obama will bring entrepreneurs from 50 countries to Washington on Monday and on Tuesday to spur economic ties.

"This is not simply an exercise in public outreach or public diplomacy," said Ben Rhodes, one of Obama's top national security advisors. "We believe that this is the beginning of forging kind of very tangible partnerships in a critical area."

The president pledged to host the summit in a landmark speech in Cairo last June, when he also called for a "new beginning" to relations between the United States and the Islamic world.

"One of the principal goals of that vision was to broaden our relationship, which has been dominated by a few different issues, a small set of issues, for at least the last decade, and going back further than that," an administration official said ahead of the meeting.

"We don't see this as a replacement for our work on things like Middle East peace or work on counter-terrorism, our work on Iran. We see this as part of establishing a more multifaceted set of relationships. It is yet another pillar."

Around 250 entrepreneurs will attended the summit from countries across the Muslim world - where America's image is tarnished by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Obama is expected to discuss ways of improving access to capital, funding for technology innovation and exchange programs, as the United States tries to better its image in the eyes of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

The delegates will vary from 20-year-old entrepreneurs to established figures like Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, who won a Nobel prize for his work on small-scale lending.

As part of Obama's plan the United States is poised to award contracts through its multi-million-dollar Global Technology and Innovation Fund, designed to spur investments in the Muslim world.

The government-backed Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which is running the competition, has received a deluge of applications, which officials say is itself a sign of improving ties.

Each chunk of funding awarded by OPIC is expected to be worth between $25m and $150m.

Polls show Obama has won plaudits across the globe since taking office in January 2009. But nearly a year on from his Cairo speech, Muslims remain deeply suspicious of the United States.

A recent BBC World Service poll of attitudes in 28 countries showed that Turks and Pakistanis still overwhelmingly believe the United States is a negative influence on the world.

The failure to broker a Middle East peace and still-bloody wars in Muslim countries loom large.

"This is a generational issue, this is something that is going to take time," the official said.