The Hon. Talat Othman
During the early seventies there were no Arab American Business Organizations in Illinois and very limited nationally. There was an Arab American Chamber of Commerce in New York with limited activities. As the oil boom in the Gulf countries started in the Mid-seventies, imports of good and services from the U.S. mushroomed. The buyers from Gulf countries did not at that time have the expertise nor the capacity to identify American suppliers and their capabilities. The building boom came quickly. The need for identifying and commenting on reputation of the sellers became of prime importance.
The buying bing by the Gulf countries of every product from medical equipment to construction material , to just about everything in a rush to bring up their economies to the 20th century. To accommodate their requirements, I set up the Mid America Arab Chamber of Commerce, on voluntary basis, with support of friends like M. Cherif Bassiouni, and Major Corporate Executives. Being an executive at the Harris Bank, I was already known and involved in the Chicagoland business community.
We set up a board of Corporate Executives and a few prominent members of the Arab American community in the Midwest. The Arab Chambers of Commerce in the Middle East as well as League of Arab States certified the Chamber. This meant that our stamp on the shipping documents certified the validity of the shipper as legitimate and requires no further review. Of course, the Chamber charged a fee for the service to cover the expenses of staff, and related office expenses. The income was also used to support Arab American Community Organizations and charitable associations.
This Chamber was extremely active in helping major American exporters and Arab buyers. American products were sought after as being of top quality and efficient and prompt delivery. The Chamber functioned effectively from 1974-1991. The Gulf countries, in the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq wanted a consolidated Chamber to be in the Capital, Washington D.C. and to be influential in government programs. That not being part of the mission of Mid America Chamber, we turned over the premises, staff and customer base to the newly formed National U.S. Arab Chamber of Commerce as did the New York Chamber and satellite offices in California and Texas.
The National Chamber tried to maintain a branch in Chicago but were not successful. Success depended on the presence of known and respected members of the Chicagoland business community. A small branch would not have that presence. A year later, seeing that a vacuum developed in professional Arab American presence in the Chicagoland area and lack of support for Arab American community organizations, the Arab American business & Professional Association was born-ABPA. The objective was to provide programs and services to the Chicago business community.
Our mission was to support the needs of the small & medium exporters to the Middle East as well as conducting programs that inform the Chicagoland business community of the the rich Arab culture. By the 90’s The major corporations had developed their own capability in dealing with the Arab countries and the buyers also developed direct contact with American manufacturers.
The formation of ABPA was smooth. A local Board was established and recognized by the Chicagoland corporate and business community, city and State Officials , as well as the civic associations in which I was involved with for several years earlier. Attending the Inaugural dinner were Mayor Richard M. Daley and Governor Jim Edgar ( could not attend in person due to the State Legislator schedule) but both signed on as Honorary Chairs of ABPA. Most unusual to agree to become Honorary Chairs before an organization holds its first event. That was a major vote of confidence which I was eternally grateful for their trust. Also attending were the presidents of the Executives Club of Chicago, The Mid America Committee (years later absorbed by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and the International Trade Club of Chicago, along with Chairmen and senior executives of major Chicago Corporations. The leadership of the Arab American business community was present.
Later, ABPA held joint programs with the above Councils and Associations. Among the early events of the association was a Trade Delegation to Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt led by Governor Jim Edgar and First Lady of Illinois, Brenda Edgar. Hosting Diplomats, elected officials, U.S. State Department Assistant Secretaries, White House Chief of Staff, Corporate Executives, Foreign dignitaries and receiving business delegations from the Middle East was the norm. The invited speakers informed our members and friends on the latest development in their areas of expertise. For the Arab American Community, ABPA held Special interest Seminars, Awards dinners that recognize leaders and achievers, as well as role models. ABPA is an association that became known as an umbrella organization for the professional side of the Arab American Community.
My interest in forming ABPA was to make a difference in the Chicagoland business community, the civic communities and the Arab American Professional community. Establishing the ABPA brand was essential to ensuring continuity as a quality, ethical, professional and First in Class Arab American association. Having served as President for the past 29 years was an amazing experience. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve as President for all those years. While members of the board of directors changed over the years, they all were professional, encouraging, and generous in their support. They helped make ABPA an association that reflects the rich culture of our Arab heritage and its contributions to the world in science, astrology, medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and others. Having recently established an Advisory Board of prominent Business and community leaders added to the effectiveness of ABPA.
After 29 years, it was time to turn over ABPA to a new generation that is very suitable to these challenging times. We are experiencing two new major evolutions. First, Covid-19 restricted attendance in person and moved us into the digital/ virtual age. Second, the appropriately strong move for social justice is now front and center. ABPA is meeting this challenge by setting up a small business task force to work with and support the thousands of small Arab businesses by conducting programs that support the communities where they operate. Of course, the traditional ABPA programs will continue. We are blessed that the incoming leadership is experienced, had served on the ABPA board for many years, committed to social responsibility, and have the technical skill to maneuver in this new virtual world.
I was ecstatic that Rashad ( Rush ) Darwish accepted the position of President. Rush had served on the board for several years, is committed to excellence in whatever project he does. He is an innovator, pushes the envelope, and is committed to expanding ABPA programs as well as bringing in the younger generation of future leaders. After several attempts over the past few years, Vivian Khalaf, Esq., Immigration attorney, has agreed to take an official role as Vice- President. Over the years, Vivian has been “the my go to person “for advice, testing new ideas, and seeking guidance. She has social service/ justice uppermost in her mind as born by the amount of pro bono work that she does on behalf of immigrants and the marginalize communities.
I am confident that with the support of the Officers, board, and the Advisory Board members, they will move ABPA to a much higher level of prominence and service to the Chicagoland business community and the Arab American Community at large.
I wish them well
Talat M. Othman