For thousands of years, the Dead Sea has attracted visitors from far and wide, drawn by legends of its power to heal and rejuvenate. On 6-7 April, 1,000 key leaders from government, business and civil society will gather on its shores for the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Over two days they will confront the issues facing more than 400 million people.
A region of two opposing systems
The Arab world is a region of two contrasting systems. One system features a dynamic private sector, digitally native youth and open economies. The other has a bloated public sector and closed, controlled economies.
Most people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) interact with both systems, facing a mixed reality. Wealth sits side-by-side with poverty; an exciting entrepreneurial culture struggles with leaden bureaucracy; and an insatiable appetite for the new is balanced with a reverence for tradition.
How these two systems interact - and whether the dynamic, forward-looking system can thrive while respecting the traditions of the Arab world - is among the most important issues the region is facing today.
Five key questions
The following five areas will determine whether the Arab world can successfully move towards the system of innovation and competitiveness.
1. Can the Arab world develop a new, sustainable economic and social framework?
The social contract in much of the Arab world has relied on state-provided employment. This is unsustainable. Nearly half the population is under 25, and a quarter of those are unemployed. Add the biggest gender gap in the world, and it’s clear a new framework is needed.
2. Can a mechanism for conflict resolution be developed?
Ongoing humanitarian disasters in Syria, Yemen and Iraq require immediate attention, as do the longer-term projects of rebuilding fully functioning states. The region has been home to long-standing tensions, and unless these are mitigated, a thriving, competitive region will be hard to realise.
3. Can an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and innovation be developed?
The stories of individual success in the region are too often ones of thriving despite the economic framework. An ecosystem that nurtures innovation and encourages firms to flourish and grow is needed.
4. Are countries prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Changes in the way we work are happening more quickly than most societies are prepared for. There is a short window for establishing the right regulatory environment, and reskilling people to make sure they - and the larger economies - can capture the opportunities of technology.
5. Will addressing corruption and transparency be a priority?
Governance reform is a “must do” issue in the region and disillusionment caused by perceptions of corruption is particularly strong among young Arabs.
Global questions, Arab answers
While other regions have grappled with similar questions, the Arab world needs Arab solutions, that capitalize on the unique strengths of the area while accounting for its important sensibilities. There are good examples of this starting to happen.
The UAE is playing a leading role in integrating the region into the global economy. The new Emirates Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, run by the Dubai Future Foundation in partnership with the World Economic Forum, is working to shape governance and capacity issues in the MENA, and it could shape data protocols across the world as a whole. Europe is enforcing strict data protections and regulations, while the United States is taking a more liberal approach. The Arab solution being developed may not just be a better fit for the region, but for elsewhere as well.
Saudi Arabia already has an influential voice as part of the G20, and it’s a voice that can grow. In 2020, it will host the Riyadh Summit, presenting an opportunity for greater impact on the regional and global agenda. A forward-looking programme that strengthens the MENA economies and the global economy as a whole will be an important step toward long-term success for the area.
Actions not words
There is a dire need for a new collaborative platform that brings governments together with businesses and other stakeholders in private-public cooperation. This is the aim of the World Economic Forum’s summit in Jordan. By convening members of the public and private sectors, and bringing new voices into the arena, such as the 100 Arab Start-ups, we hope to facilitate forward-leaning dialogue that understands and respects the values and culture of the region.