Arabs’ hopes and worries in Davos

MENA business leaders signposted the road ahead.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Jordanian King Abdullah II meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, eastern Switzerland, on January 24. (Jordanian Royal Palace)
Jordanian King Abdullah II meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, eastern Switzerland, on January 24. (Jordanian Royal Palace)

Every year, the Swiss town of Davos serves as a unique venue for the World Economic Forum (WEF). Movers and shakers from different but intersecting worlds — politics, business, technology, the  creative arts, academia and  media — converge on the snowy alpine resort.

There, they network and, for one week in January, a slew of ideas are exchanged and prospects explored.

This year, Davos received an unusually large showing from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The hopes and worries of the Arab world featured at the forum.

The Palestinian-Israeli issue took a prominent place in the discourse, which had a tinge of acrimony because of the Palestinians’ resentment of US President Donald Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The US president tried to put a good face on it. Without offering specifics, he said at Davos that his administration had a “great proposal for Palestinians.” It would cover, Trump said, “a lot of the things” discussed over the years or “agreed on.”

Jordanian King Abdullah II forcefully counselled watchful patience on the diplomatically difficult, virtually non-existent path to a Palestinian-Israeli peace process. He said Jerusalem had to be part of a comprehensive solution but insisted on the central role of the United States in any Middle East peace effort.

The Kurdish issue also figured at Davos. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi talked with the leader of the autonomous Kurdistan region, Nechirvan Barzani. It was significant, holding out hope of an end to the crisis triggered by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s independence referendum in September.

The Abadi-Barzani meeting continued a long tradition — that of Davos serving as the place where unexpected, even wildly implausible encounters occur between entrenched MENA rivals.

Iran’s role in the Middle East was among other salient concerns with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir spelling out the “two competing visions” in the region. They were, he said, a “vision of light… and we have a vision of darkness and the vision of darkness is sectarianism.”

At this year’s Davos, there was considerable time devoted to the serious business of growth and development.

MENA business leaders signposted the road ahead, laying down reflective markers on the way to the future. They launched a six-point plan in concert with the WEF to accelerate regional economic reform. The private sector, business leaders argued, must drive growth and job creation, giving hope and opportunity to young Arabs and laying a solid foundation for long-term regional stability.

Here, too, there were signs of hope and worry. A global survey of CEOs conducted ahead of Davos found 52% of respondents from the Middle East hopeful, almost double the number of optimists in 2017. Captains of regional industry said economic growth would pick up this year.

There was also concern about impediments to economic growth. “Rigid labour regulation is a significant constraint on private-sector investment and growth and thus on the creation of jobs,” the WEF said. The WEF identified “inefficient government bureaucracy” as one of the main obstacles to competitiveness.

Imad Fakhoury, Jordan’s minister for planning and international cooperation, raised a point of worry for regional leaders. The youth “bulge,” he said, must be a “resource.” It was a reference to the region’s overwhelmingly young population, which can either be a demographic dividend or a demographic time-bomb.

Seven years after the uprisings that tore across the region, governments are trying to find a way to constructively use the potential of the youth bulge for economic development and to break the cycle of violence, instability and patchy economic growth.

Even at Davos, a forum for the neo-liberal advocates of globalised business and trade, there was a sense that social constraints should not continue to pull the region back.

The need for a new regional vision was articulated by UAE Minister of State for Advanced Sciences Sarah bint Yousif  al-Amiri as she described the Emirates’ 2021 mission to Mars: “It’s about aspiration. It’s about breaking all boundaries…”