Speaking at the 5th Global Competitiveness Forum here Tuesday, Clinton also issued a cautionary note to nations across the Middle East and North Africa that there were no substitutes for good governance and opportunities for the uneducated and impoverished. Clinton said if the Palestinian-Israeli issue was resolved, the entire region would have potential for growth outstripping China and India.
The former president was optimistic about the Saudi economy and praised the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority for its visionary 10x10 program, which sought to elevate the Kingdom’s global competitiveness to among the top 10 countries worldwide by 2010. Saudi Arabia came very close and is now ranked 11th, a significant increase since the program was launched a few years ago.
“The 10x10 program represents Saudi Arabia’s commitment to thinking in terms of the future — not just thinking of the present," Clinton said. “I’m trying to give a greater sense of urgency for the profound implications of 10x10 for Saudi Arabia, the greater region and the key role of the innovation.”
Clinton was impressed by the strides Saudi Arabia was making in embracing alternative energy.
“Recognizing that your competitive advantage is not threatened if the world uses solar, wind, this region should seek to become the epicenter of the sustainable energy economy of the world,” he said. “For example, in African countries which have oil, the money is not used to diversify the economy and create more opportunities. We need to use the resources underneath the ground to create more opportunities for those people that are on top of it.”
He also stressed that sustainable job growth would not come just from industrial cities but from the private sector, as well.
“Anyone with access to an aggregation of capital should allocate a healthy portion of it to medium size businesses,” he said. “All over the world most people are employed by SMEs (small to mid-sized enterprises) that are trying to get bigger and get better.”
The 10x10 program demonstrated the government playing the proper role.
“Most innovation is based on doing something old better, faster or cheaper; if that is the case all government policy should be focused on encouraging a constant process of innovation,” Clinton said. “When we reduce the amount of time to open a company in Saudi Arabia by fivefold, we are doing something we always did, just faster.”
Clinton said if he were the Saudi minister of labor, he would keep the emphasis on training and education, but he would also strive to resolve women’s issues so that talent can help power the economy.
“In the past, the wealth was so vast that it was OK if the population was not involved in the work force, but there are benefits of work intrinsically for its psychic benefits and its important effect on a society,” he said. “Energy diversity is good for job creation, if you are committed to spreading its benefits.”
Across the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region, Clinton said governments need to be more responsive to the needs of their people.
“We need a system that has shared opportunities,” he said. “There is not a single example of a developed country which is doing well that does not employ significant government involvement in a fair and transparent way.”
He quoted Harvard business professor Michael Porter. “‘We have to create an economy of shared value; we have to build into our economic policymaking the idea that we are creating a future where a broadening group of people will wake up in the morning and feel good about the day ahead of them — feel fulfilled and dignified.’”
Clinton said the Palestinian-Israel issue was a great impediment to growth, and its resolution would pave the way to economic prosperity across the region.
“Continued economic growth in many places, including the GCC, also depends on the political progress in places where this growth is not happening in MENA, like Palestine,” he said. “If you could clear out the political underbrush in the MENA region we could maybe have faster growth than even China or India.”
He said he continues to work for peace in the region.
“Ever since I left office I have tried to stay in touch with my friends in the Palestinian community and continue to press my friends in Israel on the case for peace,” Clinton said. “It is a different world than it was 10 years ago when we brought the Palestinians and the Israelis together to strike a peace agreement, but then the underlining realities have not changed; political realities have not changed.”
He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have done a remarkable job in the West Bank. “It is just an example of what would happen for the Palestinian people if they are given a chance to govern,” Clinton said. “Palestinians are a hard-working and an incredible community. They have done remarkably well outside their country. I have never met a poor Palestinian in the United States; every Palestinian I know is a college professor or a doctor.”
The problem in Israel, he said, is what happens in multiparty democracies around the world. “If you take a poll today, two-thirds of Israelis will support peace and a peace agreement,” Clinton said. “However, it is hard to get an Israeli Parliament that reflects the people’s views on this one issue. But we all have to keep pushing.”