As over one thousand participants of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa left the Dead Sea this week, they took with them thoughts of a region where change continues to be the only certainty. Changes in leadership in some countries, changes in thought patterns throughout the region, and changes in strategic alliances all raise questions for the months and years ahead. And yet, issues such as weak institutions in the region, the need for political stability and economic dynamism are the same concerns that have been discussed for years.
The forum, hosted in Jordan, was dominated by concerns over the war in neighboring Syria and the ever-constant pressure of youth unemployment in the region, currently at 28.3%, which was discussed during the session titled ‘Advancing Conditions for Growth and Resilience.’ While the title may seem vague, the discussions were not. One striking difference in this year’s meeting was how frank the dialogue was. In both open and closed sessions, the participants displayed little patience for proposed solutions that proved to be intangible.
In a plenary, ‘A New Vision for Arab Employment,’ the CEO of Silatech, Tarik Yousef, asked, “For about a decade now we have known what the issues are, I don’t think there is a debate around the issues, the underlying causes … if we have known about the problem for about a decade and we have not really disagreed on the solutions or modalities of how to approach them, what has held us back?”
This question was valid, not just in tackling the issue of youth unemployment, but also to many of the crises in the region, including Arab–Israeli peace. In his address to the forum, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held up a copy of the Arab Peace Initiative that was agreed by the Arab states in 2002, asking why to this day Israel has not acknowledged it and calling for a palpable move forward for peace.
The Arab–Israeli conflict was a key issue debated at the forum. Running parallel to the official program were the meetings dubbed ‘Breaking the Impasse,’ an initiative that was started discreetly at the previous MENA Forum in Istanbul. The aim of the initiative was to give a platform to business leaders and civic activists to call on politicians to work for peace, which they did in Jordan. The announcement made clear that the decades-old issue remained crucial, and yet the politicians did not have any new solutions to the conflict. US secretary of state John Kerry’s speech at the forum made clear that the unprecedented changes in the region impacted the possibility for peace, and renewed calls to the Palestinians and Israelis to restart negotiations, yet there was no announcement regarding when or how that may happen.
The questions regarding the countries surrounding Jordan, from the conflict in Syria to the rising violence in Iraq and doubts in the possibility of a two-state solution, were coupled with discussions on how to capitalize on the potential of the region despite the ongoing turmoil, which acknowledged the Middle East’s vast resources and innovative sectors.
Beating the odds and staying on top of the instability were perhaps the most positive messages to emerge from the forum. King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke at the closing session, saying, “Across the region, the potential to bring about real positive change is unprecedented. Let us stay the course together. In every country, in every sector, we are seeing new innovation and enterprise. Let’s tackle our remaining challenges and create the opportunities, institutions, and better living conditions people everywhere deserve.”