Today was our first day at the conference and a big business day. Unable to sleep, I got up at about 4am local time and played on the internet until around 6am. The hotel stay includes a free breakfast so after I had taken a shower and gotten dressed for the day, I went downstairs and met up with several of the other SPIA members. The food was fantastic. They mixed traditional breakfast foods from Europe and North America with Asia and other places around the world. No bacon, of course, but I had veal for the first time and some delicious fried mushrooms and tomatoes.
At 9am we left by bus. The conference is at The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research- a beautiful building containing art displays, the conference hall, and a nice garden filled with coffee, tea, fresh squeezed orange juice (literally) and breakfast items. Before the presentations began, I had some tea and talked with a woman from the Nigerian Embassy to the United Arab Emirates about the growing partnerships the UAE and Nigeria are developing. I also met with a contractor originally from Lebanon but now living in Abu Dhabi for over 15 years about the booming (or lack there of) of development in the Dubai-Abu Dhabi corridor since the Great Recession. He informed me that at one time, the United Arab Emirates had over 30% of the entire world's high-rise cranes for building sky-scrapers.
The first presentation was by Ambassador Michael H. Corbin of the US Embassy to Abu Dhabi. He outlined the basis for US and UAE cooperation through diversification of industry, economic bilateral engagement, the development of human capitol and the future of our two countries relations. He noted that since the beginning of the Arab Awakening, the UAE has served as an example for regional stability, growth, and economic openness.
Following Ambassador Corbin was Dr. James Breece from the University of Maine Department of Economics. He focused his presentation on a background of how the Great Recession and Financial Crisis began and how it transferred from a Wall Street to Maine Street problem. He outlined the 5 critical reasons that people and nations felt this recession more deeply than other recessions in the past including: redistribution of wealth and income, the growing interdependence of the world, the creation of the European Union, structural changes in the United States, and changes in the financial sector.
Dr. Pankaj Agrrawal from the University of Maine followed with a discussion on the human consequences of the Great Recession. He focused his presentation on the growth of suicide in the United States and Europe among financial sector and high income people.
After the first half of the day, we had lunch in a palm tree filled garden and talked to the other conference attendees. Ben Brown and I spent some time talking to a representative from the Somali Embassy and a New Zealander about UMaine's contributions to and the growth of the alternative energy sector. Afterward, I met an Emirati who graduated from the University of Wisconsin and had the opportunity to talk about my home for a while.
Admiral Gregory G. Johnson spoke after lunch on the shifts of global power centers before, during, and after the Great Recession from the traditional Amero-European base to the BRICs and other regional alliances. Dr. James Warhola followed by speaking on the Global Financial Crisis and its consequences- drawing much from his historical understanding of political philosophy. The last speaker of the day was UMaine's Provost Dr. Susan Hunter who detailed the impact the Global Financial Crisis has had on University funding and structure since 2008 and the growing concern over funding issues.
After the conference I went back to my room to nap for a couple hours before heading to Vasco's Time Out to meet with our Emirati hosts and the members of the School of Policy and International Affairs Board. The food and conversation were fantastic. I talked to the Provost about educational changes in the University of Maine and a growing need for domestic students to study abroad. We discussed regional initiatives the UAE is sponsoring with its neighbors to build pipelines that avoid the Persian Gulf (and Iran!), high-speed rail initiatives between countries, and the continued diversification of the UAE's economy. We also talked about the cultural changes Emirati are going through and the difficulties they have for the future. The Emirates are a country of 10 million people with only 1.5 million native Emirati and a growing immigrant population. Finding the balance between the needs of this enormous immigrant group, the native Emiratis, and regional needs will define this country for the future.
I also found out that the man sitting next to me had spent time in Wisconsin visiting his brother (who studied there), making me proud to be able to bring up America's Dairlyland twice in one day among people I doubted could find it on a map not 48 hours before.
This was a business day. It was fun, exciting, and almost overwhelming.