Progress Over Protest

Meeting Professionals International is planning to move forward with upcoming programs in the Middle East and South Africa.

There are, however, rising concerns from members over perceptions of unfair treatment of certain minority groups in those spots.

At issue in the Mideast region is the alleged treatment of women as well as government stances on Judaism and Israel. Some members also are unhappy over an upcoming foray by MPI into South Africa for hospitality training, because the country's president allegedly supports Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, who is known to deploy terror tactics. But an MPI official said there are chasms between perception and reality.

"I have not been able to reconcile people's experience in the Gulf region with the comments of a few members who are responding to news reports but have not been there," said Didier Scaillet, vice president of global development at MPI.

"I'm not going to say there are no concerns but the satisfaction rating of the Gulf conference was through the roof; we plan to do it again in Abu Dhabi (also in the UAE) in 2009."

MPI also plans to launch a global education certificate program in Qatar next year and bring it to South Africa by 2010, in response to requests from both destinations' governments to educate hospitality workers, Scaillet said.

Many Americans believe—or claim to have witnessed—that verbal and even physical abuse of women is condoned in the Gulf and that Judaism and homosexuality are illegal. And it is a fact that no Gulf region country recognizes Israel or has diplomatic ties to the Jewish state.

"I worked in Qatar for the 2006 Asian Olympic Games and I was taken into custody for 48 hours because I have a Jewish last name," said James Mendelsohn, a travel director in Chicago. "Judaism, as well as homosexuality, can get you deported in the Middle East."

Further, he added, "I once saw a man and a woman arguing, and eventually the man was beating this woman in public. The police were there and they just stood around." Some planners are outraged over MPI's site selection.

"I have expressed to MPI my disappointment that it would select a location where I would not feel comfortable identifying myself as Jewish," said Bonnie Wallsh, a Charlotte, NC-based independent planner. "In addition, the Israeli stamp has a place of honor in my passport."

Scaillet responded: "MPI decided several years ago to be a global organization and the Middle East is poised for growth with a lot of new infrastructure and flights from the U.S. It's going to become a hub of our industry.

"There's a huge discrepancy between government policy and practice," he said. "Qatar has had Israeli representation,with delegates, since 1996, and a Jewish professional, with an Israeli visa in his passport, presented at our conference." Further, Scaillet said, the Dubai event's host committee included local businesswomen.

MPI has been responding to members who express concerns on an individual basis, he noted. "I have not seen a volume [of comments] to warrant an organizational response."

A detailed report by the U.S. State Department on Human Rights in the UAE indicated that women in the region are welcome to work, but "the penal code allows male guardians within the family to use physical means to punish women and children."

The document also said the UAE's constitution grants freedom of religion; however, Islam is favored over other religions. The report does not comment homosexuality or Israel.

A call to the UAE embassy in Washington, D.C. was not returned by press time.

Originally published Aug. 11, 2008