The challenges of Arab youth and unemployment were identified as the two key issues facing business leaders and policymakers at the opening of the World Economic Forum (WEF) regional meeting at the Dead Sea resort in Jordan.
Top executives from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and from Europe said that unemployment among the 150 million young people and an absence of gender equality in many countries were the top issues that needed to be considered in the two-day meeting.
At the opening ceremony, King Abdallah of Jordan welcomed 1,100 participants from 50 countries. The meeting is being held under the theme “empowering generations into the future.”
He said: “If we all do our part, this can be a once-in-a-generation chance to drive radical change across this region and ultimately drive radicalization out of this region. It can be our chance to release the talent, energy and hopes of millions of men and women; our chance to bridge the gap between what young people see and long for online, and what they have offline.”
His son, 22-year-old Hussein, the crown prince of Jordan, also took part in the ceremony, symbolizing the commitment to youth.
Khadija Idrissi Janati, founder and chief executive of the KMK Groupe of Morocco and a WEF co-chair, said: “Young people do not want to be just part of the discussion any more, they want to be part of the decision-making process so they do not get marginalized and ignored.
“Women are more than half of the population of the region but in some countries, they are still not full citizens, with restrictions on their ability to travel and work. If we get some solutions to the problems of youth and women, we will have achieved something at this meeting,” she added.
Arif Naqvi, founder and chief executive of Dubai-based Abraaj Group, reinforced the theme: “Women are 50 percent of the population but they are 75 percent of the region’s intelligence. We have to look at the region through the prism of opportunity and the big opportunities are with youth and women. We are on the edge of a very tangible change. Young people are causing a wave of entrepreneurship that will lead to disruption and that is unstoppable,” he said.
Majid Jafar, chief executive of the UAE’s Crescent Petroleum, said that there was a need to emphasize the positive aspects of the region, especially with regard to women, youth and entrepreneurship.
“It is essential to tackle youth unemployment. And in most Arab countries women are the harder working, more intelligent part of the population,” he said.
Dominic Barton, the global managing partner of McKinsey & Company consulting group, said that there was a deficit between the talent in the region and the levels of innovation it achieved.
“It is not about a lack of talent because this region is a major source of talent for us worldwide. But we see only about one-thirtieth of the level of innovation of some other parts of the world. There is a gap between the incredible talent base and the level of innovation that comes through.”
Maurice Levy, chairman and chief executive of the Publicis media group of France, said that entrepreneurs in the Middle East needed a more favorable environment if they were to succeed. “There is a lot of energy and initiative here in the Middle East. We are not short of entrepreneurs and ideas. But we are short on enabling start-ups to get started in business.”
Naqvi said that one of the challenges in the wider region was that it was not operating as an economic block. “The MENA region is very wide. For example, Casablanca is nearer to New York than it is to Dubai. Six cities in the region — Casablanca, Tunis, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Riyadh — account for half of the regional GDP (gross domestic product). But the region needs to work more as a trading block.”
He said that there was a big need for increased resources in infrastructure, health care and education. “Governments in the past have been all pervasive, but we still do not have the resources that we need,” he added.
Barton also pointed out that empowering women in the workplace would also help tackle the demographic challenge in the Middle East.
“We have very high population growth. If you get more women into the labor market, they will not have as many children and it would help reduce family size.”
By Frank Kane
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