Geo-Economics and Politics

Middle-power leadership is moving the global agenda forward. Here's how

Middle Powers

During geopolitical turbulence, middle powers will determine whether the world makes progress on its challenges. Image: Unsplash/Francois Olwage

Børge Brende
President, World Economic Forum
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United Arab Emirates

  • Middle powers – countries such as India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are playing an outsized role in moving the global agenda forward.
  • Today, at a time of geopolitical turbulence, middle-power leadership—particularly from the Middle East—will determine whether the world makes progress on critical security, environmental, and technology priorities.
  • The Special Meeting on Global Collaboration, Growth and Energy for Development, running from 28–29 April 2024, will focus on new pathways to reinvigorate global growth amid the challenges posed by an increasingly fragmented geopolitical and economic environment.

Today’s most pressing challenges – as well as the future’s most promising opportunities – are not bound by borders. Strengthening our economies, improving our collective security, addressing climate change, and unlocking the benefits of frontier technologies all depend on cooperative approaches. Yet, the world is at risk of drifting towards a perilous state in which collaborative agendas are replaced by confrontational mindsets.

A more contentious geopolitical climate is of such concern that in September 2023, at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Secretary-General António Guterres warned “Global challenges are mounting. And we seem incapable of coming together to respond.”

Indeed, alarm bells abound; for instance, just 12% of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are on target to be met by the 2030 deadline.

Thankfully, though, there are some bright spots.

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At the G20 Summit last December, India made it a priority to include representation from the Global South in the dialogue and steered leaders of the world’s largest economies to agreement on a joint declaration on climate financing, global debt, and other issues – this despite predictions that agreement would be impossible to achieve.

At November’s UN Climate Conference, COP28, in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates committed to leading an “inclusive and safe space for all participants,” and parties agreed for the first time to transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable sources of energy.

And this week, Saudi Arabia and the World Economic Forum are convening leaders from around the world for a special meeting in Riyadh on strengthening cooperation, particularly between the Global North and South.

What these instances have in common is that the successes are due in large measure to an inclusive approach and to the leadership of so-called “middle powers” – countries such as India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates that are not global superpowers but are playing an outsized role in moving the global agenda forward.

Today, at a time of geopolitical turbulence, middle-power leadership – particularly from the Middle East – will determine whether the world makes progress on critical security, environmental and technology priorities. This is because the solutions to several of the world’s most pressing challenges not only run through the region but require the type of collaborative approaches middle powers have championed.

On global security, leadership from Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, will be vital in forging paths in two of the most urgent crises: Ukraine and Gaza. In August 2023, Jeddah hosted peace talks for Ukraine that were vital in bringing to the table key parties from the Global North and South.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud met in Riyadh earlier this year to discuss ways to operationalize the Ukrainian peace plan.

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Riyadh has also been a critical player in working to bring parties together to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza. At the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in January, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud reiterated the Kingdom’s commitment to formally recognizing Israel if it takes steps towards a two-state solution with Palestinians.

On climate change, the success of a green energy transition that is equitable and fosters growth can only happen if capitals in the Middle East help move it forward. This is because while the region produces approximately 30% of the world’s oil and 23% of its natural gas, many countries are poised to become green power leaders of the future.

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud recently said the Kingdom is committed to being the “centrepiece” in the renewable market. Through its Vision 2030 plan, the country is diversifying non-oil exports and aiming to increase its share of non-oil GDP from 16% to 50% by the end of the decade.

And on unlocking new technology opportunities ahead, generative AI has the potential to add between $2.6 and $4.4 trillion in economic benefits annually, according to McKinsey & Company. But this can only happen if stakeholders worldwide work together. Here, Saudi Arabia has been building partnerships with countries around the world and has committed to an annual investment of 2.5% of GDP in the research, development and innovation sector by 2040.

At a complex geopolitical moment when challenges demand collective approaches, if middle powers continue to shape solutions and do so collaboratively, we will be on course for a stronger future.

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