DEAD SEA, Jordan — With conflict at its borders and refugees from the greatest displacement crisis since World War Two packing cities and camps, Jordan is a fitting host for the more than 1,000 leaders from politics, business and civil society who will join the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa to discuss the region's biggest challenges this weekend.
The three-day forum will be the first WEF MENA summit since 2015, after last year's event, scheduled to be held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, was cancelled over security concerns. Managing the impact of violent conflict will be top of the agenda, and Devex is on the ground to report.
There is far more to discuss than security, however. Many of the scheduled discussions are forward looking, with a focus on creating a stable and economically promising future for the region and its growing youth population.
Here are some of the key topics we'll be watching out for.
Regional conflicts and their fallout
Jordan has remained relatively stable since the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, but peace and conflict is a subject that cannot be avoided here. In next-door Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives in an ongoing conflict. More than 13 million people there are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, including more than 4 million in besieged or hard-to-reach places. In neighboring Iraq, government forces are still clawing back territory from the Islamic State group. Only slightly further afield, the U.N. is describing the situation in Yemen — now suffering a major food shortage as a result of the ongoing conflict between a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels — as the world's gravest humanitarian crisis.
With little hope for immediate conflict resolution, many of the sessions during the three-day forum will center on coping with the fallout — from how to restore unity and stability in areas freed from the Islamic State group in Iraq; to the protection and empowerment of refugees; to migration; to bridging the gaps between communities.
Jordan today hosts more than 650,000 refugees and will want to highlight its own priority issues, including how to manage growing pressure on its job market and public services. This is also of significance to the European Union, which is engaging its aid and foreign policy to reduce migration from or via the Middle East and North Africa into Europe. Several high-level EU representatives will be in attendance.
Identity and cultural heritage
Rarely since its founding has the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization had such an urgent role in safeguarding culture and heritage from the scourge of conflict. Devex sat down with UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova to discuss how the web of global crises has transformed thinking and programming within the organization.
The conflicts besieging the Middle East have renewed the interest in the protection of the region’s cultural heritage. Rich historical sites and artifacts have been publicly destroyed by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, in particular. Looting, trafficking and active combat have taken their toll, including in Iraq, Egypt and Libya, and experts fear a lucrative trade is emerging in the sale of stolen antiquities.
The subject is notably prominent on the Forum’s agenda, with sessions on Arabic art, history and fiction interwoven with discussions of identity, diversity and a “shared future” as the community challenges the destructive narrative propagated by extremist groups. Attention will also be paid to concrete steps that can be taken to better protect cultural heritage during times of conflict.
The Middle East and North Africa continues to experience the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world, standing at around 30 percent across the region according to the International Labor Organization. A million young Arabs are entering the job market each year, with geopolitical tensions and economic slowdown in some countries exacerbating bleak prospects.
The issue has come into sharp focus since the Arab Spring as a potential source of instability, as well as a risk factor in the spread of violent extremism. Yet efforts to tackle the problem have, to date, proven weak. A drive to improve education and train more high-skilled workers will see the region’ s university-educated workforce grow 50 percent by 2030. But even now, 2 in 5 graduates are out of a job.
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“Enabling a Generational Transformation” is the theme of this year’s meeting, with “inclusive growth” promised as a key topic of discussion. A report released ahead of the meetings urges leaders to prepare the younger generation for the jobs of tomorrow. The WEF’s New Vision for Arab Employment initiative is also working to identify skills gaps and secure commitments from businesses to help train young people across the region.
As part of the focus on job creation, there is much talk about empowering the region’s startups and entrepreneurs. One hundred Arab startups have been invited to participate in the Forum this year, and many of the selected entrepreneurs have based their companies on new technology, from ordering food online that is home-cooked by refugees, to teaching children how to code. Discussions will cover how to better secure capital to support these early-stage businesses, including from family firms, sovereign wealth funds and international financial institutions.
Jordan is the world’s seventh water-poor country, and participants at the Forum — convening beside the receding Dead Sea, the lowest land point on Earth — will plunge into current issues surrounding water management in the region.
A lack of cross-border collaboration, government regulation and weak investment in innovation has set back resources management in water-poor countries such as Jordan for decades. Conflict, urbanization and poor agricultural infrastructure across the region also continue to transform the landscape.
Sessions will include discussions on cross-border management of scarcity and desertification; the role of the private sector in facilitating better agricultural practices; and current partnerships that are setting the standard — even across some of the region’s most tenuous borders — for working together on an issue that disregards national boundaries.
To address issues around water and climate change, governments in the Middle East and North Africa are looking to industry and natural resources to mobilize new funds and more sustainable solutions to rapid urbanization. Many hope that leaders in the oil and gas industry and mining, for example — many of whom will be in attendance — can join forces with government initiatives to ensure sustainability while also promoting growth.
Watch out for updates on these topics and more as Devex reports from the World Economic Forum Middle East and North Africa, May 19-21 2017.
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