Middle East Institute bringing -mini G-20- event to Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Business Times – by Anya Litvak

It just so happened that the Pittsburgh Middle East Institute scheduled its second annual conference two weeks after the G-20 summit.

And it just happened the two-year-old nonprofit organization, begun by three Iranian women to breach the cultural and economic divide between Pittsburgh and the Middle East, was focusing on green energy during its three-day event in October.

“The whole thing about capitalizing around the G-20 is that you have everybody thinking about this city that has sort of this international aura now,” said the institute’s founder and president, Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis. “We’re not isolated. Pittsburgh is out there, and our conference is a demonstration of that.”

In fact, institute Vice President Massy Paul has begun referring to the event as the mini G-20 summit. But the buzz around the group has been building since it burst on the scene with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman headlining its first conference last year, which drew around 2,500 people.

This year, it’s Newsweek columnist and CNN analyst Fareed Zakaria headlining the event.

Also present will be a delegation from Oman, which gave the institute a list of companies with which they’d like to meet during a three-day visit, including Acquatech, CONSOL Energy and CMU, among others.

“For an organization our size, for them to send 15 people, including the secretary general of the ministry of foreign affairs,” Paul said, pausing with near disbelief. “It’s mind boggling how people have been receptive.”

For Paul, the high rank of both the international political officials and American business leaders interested in the institute’s mission speaks to the hunger for developing new economic markets in the Middle East.

Those business relationships will heal the damaged perceptions each culture may harbor against the other, Yazdgerdi Curtis said, drawing on the idea of “smart power” pioneered by Harvard professor Joseph Nye.

The high-minded mission comes with a hefty price tag. The organization raised $200,000 last year and is hoping to surpass that this year, Paul said. But that’s just enough to fund the infancy of its mission.

“Our goal is to build an institute. We’re not really going to be happy with having one or two lectures a year,” Paul said. “We need endowment. We’re not talking about a few thousand dollars. We’re talking about building an institute.”

The institute counts 62 local companies among its sponsors, supporting firms and partners for the conference. Among them are Pittsburgh giants such as Westinghouse Electric Co., Burt Hill, Comcast and Bombardier, and smaller companies and media outlets, including this one.

The institute’s sponsorship package for the upcoming event ranges from the platinum $100,000 spot to the $25,000 silver label. The presenting sponsor is UPMC, which operates emergency medicine systems in some Qatar hospitals and is pursuing other opportunities in the country.

CONSOL Energy kicked in a few thousand, said Tom Hoffman, vice president. The coal giant doesn’t have any dealings in the Middle East, nor is it looking to branch out there, Hoffman said.

“It was really an intellectual interest in seeing if these two very different cultures have anything in common in how we handle energy,” he said.

Michael Mullen, vice president of corporate and government affairs for the H.J. Heinz Co., said in an e-mail that Heinz is a sponsor because it has a growing business in the Middle East and wants to support efforts that build a better understanding of the region and its business environment.

“Heinz sees the Middle East as a potentially dynamic market with a growing economy and over 200 million consumers,” Mullen said. “In Egypt, for example, Heinz has achieved an 80 percent share of that nation’s ketchup market.”

In five years, the institute’s founders hope to be the premier organization for business and cultural exchanges with the Middle East.