DEAD SEA, Jordan: What has the World Economic Forum ever done for us?
It is the perennial question asked of the forum’s headline event in Davos, Switzerland, held at the beginning of each year.
But it is, perhaps, an even more pertinent one ahead of the annual Middle East-focused gathering in Jordan, which starts today.
To some, World Economic Forum (WEF) events are love-ins for the global elite of Davos men, and occasional woman, who fly in — many on private jets — to talk a lot, but achieve very little.
To others — including, doubtlessly, most of the attendees — the forums are more than mere talking shops. They are a genuine attempt to make true the WEF’s mantra of “improving the state of the world.”
So as the WEF’s regional event kicks off at the Dead Sea resort, will solutions to the Arab world’s myriad problems come rising to the surface, or will they sink in the water amid the chitchat of the chattering classes?
The stated aim of the two-day World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa — which will gather some 1,000 leaders from government, business and civil society — is nothing if not ambitious.
Organizers say it will address “new platforms of cooperation” for the Arab world, and focus on “shaping a new economic and social model for the region,” along with offering “initiatives to help resolve long-standing conflicts.”
But can such an event provide any tangible solutions in a region plagued by widespread conflict and intractable social, political and economic problems?
Mirek Dusek, a member of the executive committee at the World Economic Forum, said that the Jordan meeting will have a real impact on the ground, rather than being purely theoretical.
“We are very outcome-orientated here, so there’s going to be a number of concrete initiatives coming out of the summit,” he said.
One such initiative set to be launched at the forum is a “University of the People” in Arabic. The US-accredited online university will be run primarily by refugees, and is also directed at refugees from Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, as well as other qualifying students.
There will also be a focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict, following a WEF initiative formed several years ago by both Arab and Israeli business people to support the peace process.
The WEF’s Global Shapers Community is expected to announce on Saturday the launch of two hubs in East and West Jerusalem, in which young people will work toward building more peaceful societies.
The forum will also address some of the most pressing issues the region faces: The Syria conflict, radicalization, environmental dangers and the need for greater gender equality.
The overriding objective, however, is how to push what Dusek described as the “forward-looking” societal model in the Arab world, rather than legacy systems led by the often bureaucratic and inefficient public sector.
“The region really is a region of two systems. One is a very forward-looking, agile system. You could characterize it by a dynamic private sector, a technology-native young population … like in the UAE, for example,” he said.
“The other one is a legacy system, which could be characterized by a bloated public sector … by fragility and conflict.”
The WEF meeting will look at building a collaborative platform to help the former system “really take off,” Dusek said.
“We have all these amazing individual pockets of excellence that are representing the forward-looking system. So (it’s about) how we enable those to grow,” he said.
“The economic model of the future here (is) going from a more public-sector dominated employment-generating model … to a more private-sector led, entrepreneurship-led growth system.”
The Middle East’s thriving startup scene will be well-represented at the Jordan meeting.
One hundred Arab startups were selected to attend the event, including 10 from Saudi Arabia, with entrepreneurs getting a chance to discuss and promote their companies to government and business leaders. Executives from Careem, the Middle East ride-hailing service that Uber recently agreed to buy for $3.1 billion, will also attend.
Fadi Ghandour, the founder of courier service Aramex and executive chairman of venture capital firm Wamda Capital, sees the region’s startups as a positive force in building a better Middle East.
“The region is complex, full of so many challenges. It always moves on many tracks. Some are way above my pay grade, but what I see on my level is plenty of young people building the businesses of the future, changing the face of how business is done and moving governments along the way to keep up with them,” said Ghandour.
“Whether in fintech, mobility, commerce, health care, entertainment or logistics, every sector is being challenged; these are the platforms of change that we should look out for.”