The transformations in the Middle East and North Africa have by no means come to an end. As we come together at the Dead Sea in Jordan, the situation in the region remains challenging, especially in regards to security issues. However, despite the short-term obstacles, we believe that the region’s potential is far too great for it to falter. The region has all the ingredients for success: a youthful population eager to contribute to the region’s economy, large energy endowments and some of the fastest-growing economies globally.
Through its neutral convening power, the World Economic Forum offers a platform for sharing knowledge and getting difficult conversations started between government, business and civil society. These are the main challenges we will be addressing in the coming three days:
Tackling youth unemployment
Youth unemployment is the most persistent impediment to progress in the region: up to 30% of youth are unemployed. The developments of the past two years have only heightened social expectations; job creation remains at the top of the political and business agenda. The underlying problem is complex, ranging from barriers to entrepreneurship and skills and training mismatch, to lack of available financing and underdeveloped education policies. It is estimated that the region must create 75 million jobs in the coming decade if it is to harness its young people’s potential. Making the most of this resource will depend on investing productively in infrastructure, creating the conditions for youth-driven entrepreneurial growth and getting the most urgent institutional reforms right.
Include people in economic decision-making
The transformations that started in the region two years ago are taking place with different intensities and magnitudes in different countries. They all have a common theme: empowerment and inclusion – socially, economically and politically. National debates continue to be about what kind of governance, business landscape and civil society people want to build going forward. The question on the streets, in newsrooms and in political circles is as simple as it is difficult to answer: How do we want our country, our society to look like in 5, 10 and 25 years?
Citizens and governments are grappling with the trials of building national consensus around tough reforms, strengthening institutions’ abilities to withstand shocks, and balancing social needs with short-term macroeconomic and budgetary constraints. The transformation most remarkably brought to the forefront of the political discourse new groups, and it is our hope that the search for a common ground can move forward at the meeting.
Build cooperation across the region
MENA is home to some of the strongest economies globally, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, yet only 9% of trade remains inside the region. In an environment of slow global economic recovery, bolstering regional trade is increasingly important to safeguard economies in transition and soften regional disparities. While the foreign policy priorities of newly elected governments modified the region’s diplomatic and security outlook, the risk of state failure is not completely banned yet. That is why garnering maximum attention and support of the international community and institutionalizing regional collaboration are of central importance.
The humanitarian emergencies and human security are at the forefront of that agenda. The horrible conflict in Syria has caused the death of 80,000 people and has caused millions of Syrians to flee. As a consequence, the conflict is having a profound political, economic and social impact on all neighbouring countries. This meeting is about opening the dialogue necessary to overcome long-standing regional fault lines and to address key geopolitical tensions such as the situation in Syria and its adverse effects on Jordan, Iraq and other neighbours.
The transformation has brought a welcome, if still a nascent, element of inclusiveness to the Middle East and North Africa. This new opening up of the debate about education, jobs and public finances is a major step in the right direction. Take, for example, the matter of state subsidies: what used to be exclusively the domain of government decisions is now discussed more openly in all its economic and social implications.
The need for multistakeholder approaches is clear for all to see and will create a momentum for positive disruption and innovation. It is our hope that the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa can make a contribution to this process.
Author: Miroslav Dusek is Director and Head of Middle East and North Africa at the World Economic Forum.
With the collaboration of Hala Hana,Senior Manager and Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum.
Image:View of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa summit 2013/B. Loebell