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Big questions for the WEF as it considers, contemplates and confers

The World Economic Forum (WEF), as ever, concentrates on the bigger picture. While the rest of the world was disembarking in Riyadh for the ground-breaking first visit by US President Donald Trump, the WEF has gathered by the Dead Sea in Jordan, its habitual haunt for many years, to consider, contemplate and confer.

The “three Cs” are what the WEF is all about. Do not expect instant judgments, solutions or soundbites. Expect complex treatment of complex issues.

The overall message is one of renewed optimism for the region. The economies of the Middle East are getting through the shock of the dramatic drop in oil prices from mid-2014 and are learning to live with $50 a barrel. That is as high as it is going to go for the foreseeable future, according to the analysts.

It is just as well the oil producers — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait — have taken radical measures to curb government spending and to rebalance their economies. That is all coming good, as even the perennially Micawberish International Monetary Fund (IMF) has realized.

The oil importers — Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon — felt the pinch from the downturn in 2014, but have benefited from cheaper fuel and begun to address some of the serious structural imbalances in their economies. So the background in the Dead Sea is good. But there are still the vital issues that habitually confront the region: Demographics, security and geopolitics.

Jordan puts on a good WEF show and should be commended for picking up the baton when it was at risk of being dropped last year. But, from the moment you land at Queen Alia International Airport near Amman, you realize you have arrived at a good house in a bad neighborhood.

Maybe the guest list is a little lighter than it has been in recent WEF Middle East and North Africa (MENA) events but that does not really matter. When you have Dominic Barton of McKinsey, Majid Jafar of Crescent Petroleum, Arif Naqvi of Abraaj Group and Ursula von der Leyen, the German minister of defense, you know there will be some cerebral fireworks.  

The WEF schedule is guaranteed to provide it. The agenda for Saturday kicks off with a chat about the Arab world, “from history to fiction,” and is followed later in the day by a discussion on infrastructure in the region — a big thing for Jordan, with its perennial water and energy challenges — and then moves onto “our millennial world.” There you have the “three Cs” in just a couple of hours.

The big opening plenary session — the great set pieces for which the WEF is famous — is about “innovative Jordan.” You can expect some Hashemite lineage there, even if they all have to head off to Riyadh immediately after. 

From there on, the program gets increasingly interesting. A session on “finding the $100 billion for infrastructure” looks fascinating even though the figure for the MENA region is probably understated by a factor of about 10.

The economic backdrop to the World Economic Forum in Jordan is good — but the perennial issues of regional demographics, security and geopolitics remain.

Frank Kane

Maybe they will discuss that in the session entitled “addressing urban oil dependency,” or in another that stands out titled “Healthcare: Building a system that works.” Or perhaps it will all spill over into the “cultural soiree” at the Sunset Arena in the Movenpick Hotel? Who knows?

As a seasoned “Weffer” myself, I know that by the time we gather in the Sunset Arena there will be enough intellectual cannon fodder to last at least until the next event. But what I really want answers to from this WEF, in no particular order and on an “off the record” basis, are these questions:

1. What will the Middle East do if Donald Trump does not go his full term in the White House? The president is looking increasing shaky at home but has fantastic “buy-in” among Middle East leaders and business champions. What do they do if it all goes wrong in DC?

2. What is the verdict on Saudi Arabia? Can the ambitious reforms proposed under the Vision 2030 plan succeed? What is the alternative if they do not?

3. What is the view of Iran, as that country votes in the presidential elections?

4. How can society harness the potential of the millions of young Arabs who are frustrated, angry and alienated from traditional political processes? They are the future, everyone at WEF agrees. But how does the older generation make way for them without things falling into anarchy and chaos?

5. As ever, is there a chance of long-lasting peace between Israel and Palestine? As I sit writing this in the Movenpick, looking out across the Dead Sea, I can see the occupied West Bank and Israel. Is there any hope the parties can reconcile their differences?

Those are the big questions. I hope to have answers by the time I write my next column.

 

Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. He can be reached on Twitter @frankkanedubai