January may be upon us and stretching out blue and gray. But, to generate some cheer, it is worth reflecting on the positive impact of Christmas in the Middle East. Despite the contradictory motifs of snow and cosy Victorian cheer, the Christian tradition was born in Bethlehem, Palestine. However it is also worth remembering that the region is dominated by Islam, a faith so often viewed as extraordinarily rigid in its dogma.
How refreshing therefore is it to see Dubai awash with the festive spirit last month. Cynics may point to the obvious commercial opportunities that Christmas, arguably one of the biggest global brands around, offers both the retail and tourism sectors, but to cite that would be to ignore the real story, namely the willingness of many Islamic countries to embrace diversity through this most Christian of feasts.
Much the same can be said for the burgeoning Islamic banking sector, one in which Sharia compliance works beautifully with the modern global banking culture. In a time when many in the West see the more extreme elements of Islam as a threat to civilization as we know it, it is of supreme importance to highlight the efforts being made by the nations of the GCC to take their place within the global family of nations and the global economy. Islamic banking is possibly the best ambassador for this genuine initiative.
For without diversity there will never be advancement. Without diversity there will only be a cultural lockdown. Dubai and other states in the region have embraced diversity because they have the maturity and the confidence to accept that which is outside their traditional norms without feeling they have surrendered their identity.
This is a lesson for the new Middle East and one we must seek to promote in 2008.