It has become known as the international conference where the good and the great of the world come together, while the top international media outlets cover it all. A unique conglomeration of the world’s most influential business leaders, politicians, academics, and artists in the tiny Swiss ski town of Davos, discussing the world’s most pressing issues. Yet as eniGma’s Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata discovered, the World Economic Forum in Davos has also become a barometer of the ever-changing political climate in the Middle East. Read on to find out her insider’s perspective on how the Arab world featured heavily once again with the top leaders in Davos…
For five jam packed days of fascinating conference sessions, engaging lunches, prestigious events and the most high level networking in the world, the 45th Annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) saw over 2,500 VIPs flock to Davos from 140 countries around the world. With the theme ‘The New Global Context’, it was only expected that the political and economic instability plaguing the Middle East and the grave threat of terror movements such as ISIS would be a prominent topic of discussion.
Yet as a regular WEF participant for several years now, I have also noticed how it has become a barometer of the changing political landscape in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. In 2012, the year following the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and the unrest in Libya and Syria, for the first time the WEF invited young political activists, and members of political opposition parties, something that dictatorships of the pre-revolution regimes would have never allowed. It was fascinating to hear new voices and perspectives speak openly about the pressing issues of our region for the first time in front of such a big international audience. And it gave many young Arabs hope that the new emerging democratic movements in our region had support from the international community.
For example, in 2013, it was fascinating to see Egypt’s first Prime Minister of a democratically elected government, Hisham Kandil, from the Freedom and Justice party (the political wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood) present a new voice for Egypt on the world stage. Seeing him answer difficult questions from media powerhouses like Fareed Zakaria and Arianna Huffington was something most Egyptians could have never imagined during the era of President Mubarak.
2014 was also a fascinating year for Arab representation at Davos, as following the removal of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt was represented at Davos by the transitional government headed by Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi. By then the euphoria surrounding Egypt had faded and instead, Egyptian officials were left trying to answer questions about the lack of freedom of the press, the silencing of opposition parties and the use of force towards its own citizens. The mood may have shifted but it was great to see another Egyptian Prime Minister answer difficult questions and not shy away from public scrutiny.
Yet everything changed for Egypt this year at the WEF; and in a way it seemed Egypt had come full circle. After several months of negotiations, it was announced that Egypt’s new president, the former Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah Alsisi would be attending the annual meeting in Davos.
For the WEF, it seemed like Egypt had a new face of power and stability in President Alsisi. But it was also noticeable that unlike the other Arab leaders, who came to power after the Arab Spring, President Alsisi did not hold a press conference with the international press nor did he take on any questions from the audience or take part in a Q&A session with an experienced journalist (as Prime Ministers Kandil and Biblawi had done). Instead the Egyptian delegation was at Davos with one controlled message: Egypt is back in business and ready for investment.
In his official keynote speech, President Alsisi, said that, despite the many obstacles facing Egypt, he was determined to meet the demands of the revolution. This would require the completion of institutional reform, which would happen through several key developments: parliamentary elections in March 2015, vitalising the social contract through economic progress and addressing violence and extremism.
“We need to guarantee a decent life for the people of Egypt through private sector-led growth. This means providing social justice, reducing red tape, creating equal opportunities for all investors, and ensuring sound fiscal and monetary policies,” said the President. He then added that his goal is to reach 7% economic growth and to offer new opportunities to what he described as the courageous, resilient Egyptian people. Given their role in the revolution and the dilemma of youth unemployment, the president will try to focus on the 60% of Egypt’s population that are under 40.
On the international stage, President Alsisi said Egypt plans to continue its efforts to negotiate an agreement between Israel and Palestine, in order to create a new and stable climate across the region. Egypt will also work with its international allies to deal with the challenges they share. “No country can achieve its goals in isolation from the world but, in turn, the world has an obligation to create the conditions for a country’s successful integration into the global economy,” he said.
The President said Egypt will do its part to tackle extremism and with the recent attacks on Egypt’s soldiers on the borders, Alsisi’s words showed relentless determination against terrorism. “Islam is a religion of tolerance yet over recent years it has become associated with violence and extremism. It’s time to stop and consider a religious discourse that sets aside the elements that can lead to misunderstanding. No one has the monopoly of truth and no one should believe their ideas are better than those of others.” He added that Egypt would work towards serious efforts on an international level to help change the misconceptions about Islam.
The speech was powerful and had a lot of broad positive statements, but as he did not have a question and answer session with the audience afterwards, it was hard to get more details on how the President plans to achieve all these goals, given the very difficult political and economic situation Egypt finds itself in today.
And interestingly, the WEF no longer had any Egyptian opposition figures or activists in attendance (probably at the government’s request) and for the most part, allowed the Egyptian President to deliver his message without any criticism whatsoever.
Dealing with Arab politicians is a difficult dance in ever changing political times, so the WEF’s position is understandable. But thankfully other sessions on the Middle East did tackle the difficult issues facing our region. The session titled ‘The Arab World Context’ discussed how old-style politics, which governs according to the interests of its serving politicians rather than the peoples’, wasn’t successful in containing the drastic changes happening in the region in the past few years. In addition, it has failed to establish fundamentals of progress such as reliable institutions, a sense of national identity and at least somewhat stable economies.
One of the points discussed was how the general perspective of change should be less concerned with electoral milestones and political process and more focused on the development of the economy. But this will only happen when social justice is achieved, which is why it’s crucial the average Arab citizen finds satisfying short-term opportunities that will result in better day-to-day living. Moreover, creating these opportunities will shift the general mindset and will make it less likely for governments to blame sectarian rife, Israel and terror for shortcomings.
During the session, important speakers took the stage, such as CEO of Crescent Petroleum, Majid Jafar, who stressed that the region’s economic stability should be put on top of the forum’s agenda. “Middle East’s youth unemployment exceeds 30%,” he said. Also, Egyptian politician and former Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Amre Moussa, focused on calls for reform in Egypt and its neighbouring countries.
Several participants in this session called for new investments in small and medium sized infrastructure projects. They also discussed how supporting the private sector is crucial for a region dominated by economies controlled by state interests and in dire need of reform. They also discussed how Saudi Arabia has a substantial role to play in mobilising its reserves to motivate growth across the region.
The issue of extremism was, as expected, raised in the session on ‘Regions in Transformation: the Arab World’. During this session, the panel discussed the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria, political unrest in Yemen and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks. According to the Moroccan Chief of Government, Abdelilah Benkirane, the Arab world is dithering between maintaining the status quo, violent groups wanting a global Islamic caliphate and those who simply want democracy. And unfortunately, it appears that the brutality of extremism is gaining momentum in many parts of the region; particularly in Iraq and Syria.
Ayad Allawi, Vice-President of Iraq, said, “before we can even think about the future, we must secure the stability of the countries in turmoil.” He seemed pessimistic about the conflicts being resolved in the near future, particularly with the lack of a consistent strategy against ISIS at the regional or international level. When asked about the reasons for this, Allawi said Iraq does not have the resources to defend itself and needs the assistance of foreign countries against ISIS.
The French president, Francois Hollande, also expressed his concern with the ISIS threat in his keynote speech, especially with the recent attack on the French satirical weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo. He said the atrocious attack wasn’t just an attack on France, it was also an attack on freedom. “The very foundation of our society found itself under assault.”
However, the French president was grateful for the international solidarity shown after the gruesome attack as “every country is vulnerable to terrorism.” He then added that an attack on the religion of Islam is as unacceptable as an anti-Semitic attack, and assured people that in France every religion has the right to be expressed freely.
“The sources of terrorism cannot go unnamed,” Hollande stressed, in reference to the extremist movements of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Terrorism fuels itself by the unlawful flows of drugs, money, and people, he added. “Terrorists are also using the internet as a weapon of indoctrination, manipulation, and confusion.”
Hollande called on governments and business leaders to have a united and strong response against terror. “Every time the world lets a conflict linger, terrorism flourishes,” he said. “France will always be present. Whenever it can act, it will.”
Similarly in his special address the U.S Secretary of State, John Kerry, said the world will not bow to terror and referred to ISIS with its name in the Arab world, Daesh. “The 20th century was defined by the civilised struggle to uphold values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. The first step against criminal anarchists, who claim an illegitimate religious cause, is to defeat ISIS. They are better armed, better trained and are gaining more ground than any other terrorist group in history, Kerry added. “Daesh represents a threat to individual nation states as well as the entire region.”
The coalition of 60 partners formed to defeat Daesh has been exerting successful efforts, Kerry said, but the speed of progress is not yet fast enough. The U.S Secretary of State also said that solving the problem of terrorism should include the underlying causes that lead to such extreme ideologies. “Eliminating the terrorists we confront today only solves part of the problem.” The very environment from which terrorism and fundamentalism arise should also be addressed.
However, Kerry concluded his speech on a more positive note by mentioning the historic international cooperation against Ebola, new trade pacts, progress towards an international climate-change agreement, as well as steps toward a peaceful resolution for the Iran nuclear negotiations.
So once again the WEF did a great job of keeping the looming issues of the Middle East at the top of their agenda for all the regional and international players who were in attendance. And in an ever-shrinking world, where political and economic crises have ripple effects, these crucial official and unofficial meetings at the WEF, are becoming increasingly more important. Because for at least that one working week, the business and political leaders of the world converge in one small town, to seek a more harmonious world. Of course the task is daunting and often unachievable, but it’s remarkable that over 40 years since its creation, the World Economic Forum still has the power to bring the most influential people of the world together and to act as the world’s ultimate annual barometer for change and hope.