With the World Economic Forum holding its regional meeting for the Middle East for the past 9 years, the Swiss non-profit foundation, based in Geneva with a mission to “improve the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas”, it certainly has its hands full in the Arab World! With the increased regional instability, horrific violence and continued conflict and authoritian rule, the outlook for a peaceful future seems further and further away. Thus each year, these meetings of the Arab leaders from all different sectors become increasingly important.
Although the most famous WEF meetings are held annually in Davos, Switzerland, the regional meetings take place in various locations. This year’s forum on the Middle East and North Africa took place in Jordan with the full support and presence of their Majesties King Abdullah II and Queen Rania Al Abdullah, marking the country’s ninth time to host this meeting (the last being in 2013). The meeting took place between the 21st and 23rd of May 2015 and hosted an array of important speakers including an opening address by King Abdullah II of Jordan.
King Abdullah opened the meeting by confirming his commitment to reform and invest to achieve prosperity and peace in the region. “It is time for a new push, engaging all sectors, to create inclusive growth,” he said. “Our goal is to re-launch growth and investment while deepening reform and inclusion.” He added that measures are being taken to support start-ups, business expansion, market-ready skills, and that new public-private partnerships are supporting industry, innovation, and the most important source of job growth − entrepreneurship and the private sector.
While acknowledging the crises facing the Middle East and North Africa, the king said that countries should not be sidetracked by issues in the region. “The violence that threatens so many in our region is part of a global assault on peace, law, democracy and coexistence. Defeating this demands a comprehensive, global approach built with security, diplomacy, development and moral leadership.”
The king also said that despite the challenges Jordan faces, the country has been able to grow in investment at more than 3% last year and is expected to grow at close to 4% in 2015. He added that the nation has the potential to be a gateway for regional and world trade, business, and innovation.
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi was also among the most important figures at WEF Jordan this year, and gave an important speech where he stated that “the Arab world is facing severe political, economic, and security challenges, which countries have to address together with the international community,”. The president went on to explain that transforming the Middle East and North Africa will require focusing on the region’s young people, stating that “enhancing the role of the youth can no longer be considered a luxury. It has become an imperative. Their energy should be channeled in the right direction to drive production and realize the desired progress and development.” President Al Sisi also announced that the 2016 World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa will be hosted by Egypt in Sharm el-Sheikh; which will mark an important milestone for Egypt after the recent turbulence it has faced.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority spoke after Al Sisi in a session titled ‘Creating a Regional Framework for Prosperity and Peace’. He talked about a two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the Palestinian leader said he remains committed to setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in the lands Israel captured in 1967. He also explained that “what prevents the achievement of this desire is Israel’s continuation of its occupation and settlement activity and imposing realities on the ground.” But he also hoped for peace, “We will be able to overcome difficulties and hardships to achieve an agreement that will enable our people to obtain their freedom and independence.”
Violence and extremism in the region were also hot topics for discussion and in a session titled ‘Addressing Violent Extremism’, Ayad Allawi, vice president of Iraq, and other officials addressed violent extremism and spoke of the challenges facing the Middle East. “In Iraq and the region as a whole, the biggest challenge we face is extremism and terrorism, but this has repercussions at the international level,” he said. Allawi demanded critical and clear strategies not just to fend off the prompt threat of the extremist group ISIS, but also for the long-term challenge of preventing the future radicalization of the region’s youth.
The youth of the Middle East was a recurring theme at the conference, as the Middle East’s young people make up almost two-thirds of the Arab population. In a session on the “Youth Imperative”, Fadi Ghandour, founder and vice chairman of Aramex International, declared that the “youth are the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity in the region.” He stressed that the main function of the educational system in the Arab world is “still to produce people who work in the public sector”, and that this is a huge problem. In some Arab countries, the public sector employs about 50-80% of the workforce, he remarked.
“In our region we are so caught up with getting the degree, but [we] are not teaching youth how to think,” commented Omar Alghanim, chief executive officer of Alghanim Industries. He also remarked, “Across the Gulf, there is no teacher proficiency. We have a lot of desks, a lot of school buildings and a lot of teachers, but we don’t have a lot of quality.”
Bodour Al Qasimi, the female chairperson of Sharjah Investment and Development Authority, said, “The need to overhaul the educational system is imperative and the collective responsibility of parents, governments, the private sector, and civil society. We need to first invest in people then in infrastructure.”
Al Qasimi also suggested that the problem is that young women are not joining the workforce. At the current rate of 44%, female youth unemployment is almost double that of their male counterparts in the region, despite the fact that more than half of university graduates are women. “We need to change perceived gender roles in our society,” said Al Qasimi. “We need to have more legislation that supports women, such as maternity leave and shared parental responsibility.”
Since Jordan is considered one of the most stable and peaceful hubs in the region, a session on the economic development in Jordan highlighted its unique position to potential investors. Mohamed Alabbar, the chairman of the Dubai property company Emaar, and other panelists spoke at the ‘Jordan Relaunched’ initiative on why they continue to believe in Jordan. Alabbar said the time is right to invest in Jordan, despite the many difficulties the country faces and the increasing stream of more than 800,000 refugees it has taken in. He also assured the audience that the economy was growing despite the turmoil in the region. “The numbers are working, I think it’s the right time now to make that investment,” he said. “If Jordan has grown at about 4% now, imagine what will happen once all these issues are settled in the region,” he stated.
Bahaa Eldin Hariri, owner of Horizon Group which is constructing the Abdali Development Project in Amman, said the potential for Jordan will exponentially grow when Iraq and Syria are more stable. “Jordan has to be ready for post-instability in Iraq and Syria,” he commented, adding that economic growth rates can go back to pre-2008 global financial crisis figures when the average rate was around 7%.
The WEF on the Middle East and North Africa has been a platform for the launch of several initiatives and this year was no exception. In this session, the Jordanian government announced $6.9 billion worth of projects in energy (including renewable), water, transport, ICT, infrastructure, urban development, and tourism in Jordan. It also launched its ‘Jordan Relaunched’ campaign to revive its economy and attract investments and businesses. The government announced new investment opportunities worth about $20 billion, hoping to generate about 180,000 new jobs, as it looks to achieve economic growth of 7.5% by 2025.
With turbulence, turmoil and constant crises arising in the Middle East, one is left with little hope for betterment in the region politically and economically speaking. But after three days of debates, panels and discussions The 2015 WEF left everyone with the shared conclusion (and hope!) that there are substantial opportunities in the Middle East regarding both economic infrastructures and social reform.