Known as the Davos of the United States, the Milken Institute’s Annual Global Forum had always poked my interest, yet I always imaged it to be a US centric gathering of financial institutions and their counterparts.  In truth it is a much more vibrant and unique gathering of world leaders, business tycoons, public servants, influencers and industry giants. And the fact that the conference always takes place in glamorous Beverly Hills, California is reflected on the forums attendees, speakers and the events that take place around it. Industry leaders from Los Angeles’ dynamic entertainment industry are always present, as well as A list actors, and media personalities, adding glamour and excitement and making the forum unique.

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The forum aims to “increase global prosperity by advancing collaborative solutions that widen access to capital, create jobs, and improve health” but today it does so much more. Founded in 1991 by Mike Milken, the American philanthropist, the Milken Institute hosts an annual four-day Global Conference every April. This year there were over 3500 attendees with 700 speakers, including Tony Blair, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, former president of Mexico Vicente Fox and Princess Reema Al Bandar Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. Several US members of congress, established journalists, and celebrities such as actresses Patricia Arquette and Frieda Pinto. Will.i.am also participated.

Many sessions focused on issues particular to Africa and the Middle East. ‘Great Ambition: Islamic Finance Goes Global’ dealt with Islamic banking and speakers included Mohammed Ahmed Alkhaja, Head of Asset Management at Osool Asset Management, Charon Wardini bin Mokhzani, Executive Director at Khazanah Nasional Berhad and Managing Director at Khazanah Research institute, and Sean Marion, Managing Director of Financial Institutions Group at Moody’s Corporation.

‘Leapfrogging and Innovation in Africa’ presented new technologies being pioneered in Africa in health, energy, and education to retail.

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‘The World in Turmoil’ session highlighted countries plagued by domestic political turmoil in the Middle East, and Asia with domestic political turmoil. The distinguished panel included Shaukat Aziz, former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Vicente Fox, David Miliband, President and CEO of International Rescue Committee and former Foreign Secretary of the UK, and Matthew Spence, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East policy.

‘The Economic Future of the Middle East’ session, examined obstacles confronting Arab youth, who comprise 60 percent of the population in the Middle East region, which suffers from the world’s highest unemployment rate.  Widespread corruption, conflict, and ill-prepared youth have made job prospects impossible for many. Speakers included many Arab success stories themselves, such as Wael Amin, partner at Sawari Ventures and Chairman at ITWorx, Hala Fadel, partner at Leap Ventures and Chair at the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Pan Arab Region, Samer Salty, founder and CEO of Zouk Capital and Elizabeth Richard, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the US Department of State, who had an in-depth understanding of the region.

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‘Beyond the Headlines: Global Leaders Explore Africa’s Future’, brought together African heads of state, business leaders, and global investors to discuss how to increase investment opportunities in the continent as well as Africa’s economic impact on the global level.  Important gains being made in Africa in direct foreign investment, upgrades in technology, and improvement in infrastructure were  highlighted. The speakers for this large session were Tony Blair, Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, Scott Minerd, Chairman of Investments and Global Chief Investment Officer at Guggenheim Partners, and Patrice Motsepe, founder and Executive Chairman at African Rainbow Materials.

The panel on ‘Growth on the Frontier: Insights from African Executives’ provided audiences with valuable information on the most promising African geographies and industries today.  High level panelists – Bassim Haidar, Founder and CEO of Channel IT, Mimi Alemayehou, Managing Director at Black Rhino and Executive Advisor and Chair at Blackstone Africa Infrastructure, Paul Hinks, CEO at Symbion Power and Chairman of the Corporate Council on Africa, and A.B.C. Orjiako, Chairman of the Seplat Petroleum Development Company discussed which policies and infrastructure projects are most needed, and what local businesses, government, and international businesses community should do to contribute to market growth across the region. While the panelists were discussing how to alleviate the energy deficit in West Africa, Bassim Haidar pointed out a major problem regarding energy in Nigeria, “It’s not only about [energy] generation, distribution remains the biggest challenge”.  Haidar attributed this problem to the lack of developed infrastructure.

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On the last day, in a powerful session titled ‘What Would You Do to Make the World Better for Women and Girls?’, the all-star panel discussed how we can all help make the world a better place for women and girls, highlighting the fact that better opportunities for women lead to greater economic development. Oscar winning actress Patricia Arquette, Oscar nominated actress Freida Pinto, Saudi Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, Rwandan president Kagame, and Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women all took part.

Another session named ‘The Global Economy: A Conversation With Timothy Geithner, Henry Paulson and Robert Rubin’ featured Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg as she interviewed the previous US Treasury secretaries about global economic trends, public finance, and capital markets.  While entertainment giants Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS, Peter Rice, chairman and CEO of Fox Networks, Michael Lynton, CEO and chairman of Sony Entertainment and Sony Pictures, and Nina Jacobson, principal and producer of Color Force, spoke at the “Trends in Global Entertainment” session about how the new global marketplace is affecting the content that studios produce in the US.

These were just a taste of the many sessions at the Global Conference, not to mention all the fascinating and exclusive events organized in beautiful private homes and other breathtaking locations around Los Angeles. All in all it is a truly insightful and enjoyable experience for those who want to do business in the US and increase the understanding and ties between East and West. The only thing missing was enough Arab leaders and businessmen, but hopefully with more awareness that will change soon….

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