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Monday, June 17, 2024

A glimpse of Two Giants

by Paul Findley

@ Al Habtoor Group: A friendly greeting on stage at the launch of 'Pathways to Peace' in Illinois
Official launch of his peace initiative 'Pathways to Peace' at Brunel Center, Illinois College on Tuesday October 14, 2014

Two Giants The Honorable Paul Findley, a republican congressman for 22 years, speaks of his respect and admiration of two great men he sat alongside at the launch of what promises to be a step towards peace in the Middle East.

Service in Congress provided me acquaintance, and in a few cases, close friendship, with people of historic importance. Two of them spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of 2,000 last Tuesday [October 14, 2014] at Illinois College. One was former President Jimmy Carter, whom I believe to be the most-respected American worldwide. The other was Dr Khalaf Al Habtoor of Dubai, still in mid-career but climbing fast in business, philanthropy, education and leadership in the Arab world.

For me, it was a brief but happy trip down memory lane. I first met Carter in January 1977 when he took the oath of office as US President. As he climbed to world prominence in Middle East policy, my committee assignments occasionally put me in small gatherings with Carter in the White House.

Of the seven presidents with whom I served, he stood out as a remarkable human being. He was kind, a good listener, always considerate, devoid of pretense and eager to cooperate. He could be tough as steel. On two important but unpublicised occasions, he forced the Israeli prime minister to stop military operations in Lebanon that violated US law. In Camp David diplomacy that produced a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, he kept President Anwar Sadat of Egypt from leaving the scene in disgust over the intransigence of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and on another occasion he secured an important concession from Begin that again kept negotiations alive. After Arab South Yemen became a part of my life in 1974, I urged Carter to reopen diplomatic relations with the local government. Carter told me, “I will see to it.” And he did.

Carter was an exceptional president. When voters denied him a second term, he left the White House but took his presidency with him. Raising funds entirely in the private sector, he created The Carter Center in Atlanta and assembled a staff that helps him carry on much of the remarkable foreign and domestic endeavors his White House staff helped him advance. His team now totals 155 professionals based mainly in Atlanta but with outposts in several countries, three in the Middle East. He is currently supervising the construction of 200 Habitat for Humanity homes in Texas. He and his wife will often be found with hammer and saw, helping to fashion homes for poor people, a labor of love they still enjoy after more than 30 years. When home on Sundays in their modest bungalow in Plains, Georgia, Carter always teaches a Sunday school class. He travels the world advancing democracy, human rights, especially the plight of women, and peace.

His unique presidency has now been underway for nearly 40 years - not just four. In addition to writing 28 books, he, like Al Habtoor, has championed Palestinian rights for 40 years. Last Tuesday, he met members of the Phi Alpha Literary Society, the lecture hosts, who welcomed him as an honorary member, then gave him a rousing sendoff with a lusty - almost earsplitting - rendition of the society song. Smiling broadly at Carter's side was his sponsor, honorary Phi Alpha member Al Habtoor, Dubai philanthropist and business leader who had heard the song at his own induction three years ago. Both were still smiling an hour later when I met them at lunch hosted by Illinois College President Barbara Farley.

Al Habtoor is like Abraham Lincoln in several respects. He had little classroom education, leaving school after completing the elementary sixth grade. He is a self-taught engineer, architect, builder and sponsor of three new institutions of higher education in the Emirates.

He is one of the original - perhaps the greatest - members of a small group of pioneers who created a modern-era wonder of the world, the city of Dubai. On what 40 years ago was a nearly-barren stretch of sand dunes on the Arabian Gulf, now stand scores of skyscrapers - all modern, gleaming and bustling with business activity. The million people who now live in Dubai have replaced Beirut as the chief city of commerce and banking in the Middle East.

When Al Habtoor walks to his office early each morning, he will often stop halfway for prayer at a splendid mosque he built three ago as a gift to the people of Dubai. During my visit to the mosque two years ago, its beauty struck me as unmatched by any structure I had seen in wide travels.

I first met Al Habtoor nearly 30 years ago on my first visit to the United Arab Emirates. He was then a young engineer but already owned the largest hotel in Dubai. Today he owns many hotels including four internationally, along with multiple other companies. He provides employment to thousands of families. He is a rare billionaire who invests his earnings in education, antipoverty programs and peace efforts. At Illinois College he is building an educational structure, 'Pathways to Peace', that carries the promise of mutual understanding between East and West. Endorsed by Carter, the program will yield broad learning for faculty and students in conflict resolution. With grandfatherly pride, I mention that the first outline was designed by Dr. Andrew Findley, a professor at Rose-Hulman Institute.

Al Habtoor and Carter spoke in Jacksonville as the 17th annual lecture event sponsored by Phi Alpha Literary Society. Past lecturers and honorary members of Phi Alpha, include Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.

Al Habtoor came into my life because of our common concern over the plight of Palestinians. Like Carter, he speaks out for the underprivileged in articles and books. He never looks back, always forward. He never gives up.

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