World Economic Forum 2005: Meeting 21st Century Challenges

Article excerpt

"Committed to improving the state of the world" is the World Economic Forum's proud assertion. Something of a tall order, one may be forgiven for thinking. But when the 2005 World Economic Forum kicks off in Jordan on 20 May, participants and observers will experience much more than just another talking shop, the event's Managing Director Frederic Sicre told The Middle East

FEW WOULD DENY THERE IS A CLIMATE of change in the Arab world. There is also a growing consensus among prominent leaders in the region that ambitious and sustained economic and political reforms are the way forward.

Fred Sicre explained: "There is a situation now that has been building up for some time among the leadership of the region, who feel that to maintain the status quo would be to risk disaster.

"Economically, politically and socially, each country is moving forward at its own pace, which is a good thing because they have very different requirements. Egypt's needs, for example, are not the same as those of Bahrain. But what they do have in common however is a desire to participate much more in the way their lives are run. In Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon, people are taking to the streets. It is clear they want their voices to be heard," Mr Sicre observed.

Over the past 25 years, Arab societies have seen vast changes at all levels; it is sometimes easy for the international community to forget just how dramatic these have been and how completely they have transformed certain areas. Take Doha, for example: 25 years ago the sleepy capital city of Qatar was mostly made up of the old style, thick mud walled buildings, dusty alleyways and a small souq. There was, of course, the famous pyramid-shaped Sheraton Hotel and a marina, home to an impressive selection of expensive yachts but nothing like the bustling, vibrant city we know today with its high rise buildings, large shopping malls, international franchises and a souq which spreads over several streets. And Qatar is by no means alone: dramatic change is evident across the whole of the Gulf and far beyond.

However, wealth and changing political and economic climates bring to the fore new and important issues and it is some of these "issues" that the World Economic Forum hopes to address.

The programme promises some lively debate with sessions including: Tourism as an engine for reconstruction and peace; predicting the legacy of President Bush in the Middle East; corruption in the Arab World; the media; judicial reform; rebranding the Middle East through culture; unlocking the potential of micro-finance; investing the oil liquidity gift and the implications for the Middle East of Turkey's proposed entry to the European Union, to name but a few. But it is methods of arriving at a blueprint for regional economic reform that the organisers are the most keen to see hammered out at the Dead Sea resort.

"What features most highly on the Forum's agenda follows three main trends," Fred Sicre points out: "Economic growth, education and governance, all of which are intrinsically intertwined.

"We have recently learned that the Arab countries will have to come up with 80m new jobs between now and 2017, just to maintain current unemployment levels. That would require a growth level of 4% per annum, which has never been achieved anywhere. The challenge is enormous."

Unfortunately, population growth has pushed unemployment rates in the Middle East to some of the highest levels in the world, and brought into sharp relief the urgent need for a reorientation of economic policies. Reforms that will engender a process of sustained job creation are essential if the challenges of tackling unemployment and all its associated issues are to be met.

"Change of this nature does not take place overnight," Fred Sicre observed. The private sector has a vital role to play in the future of the region through job creation, spurring economic development and reducing dependence on natural resources. …