Mideast econ forum ends with questions, few answers

May 24 , 2005  

DEAD SEA, Jordan, May 23 (Reuters): The World Economic Forum’s third attempt to come to grips with the economic and political intricacies of the Middle East and North Africa ended Sunday with a surfeit of questions over answers.

Is there really an “Arab spring” under way with democracy blossoming across the region, as U.S. officials claimed?

Why did so few senior European officials and business leaders turn up for the three-day event in Jordan?

How can the Arab world possibly compete when the World Bank says it needs growth rates akin to those of Asian tiger economies if it is going to avoid an unemployment meltdown?

U.S. officials were out in strength at the meeting, designed to be a high-profile gathering of global political and business leaders to push for peace and prosperity.
Book-ended by increased tensions either side of the Jordanian venue-in Iraq and Israel-the Americans pledged to help the region embrace the reforms they said they could see rising up everywhere.

First lady Laura Bush, a keynote speaker, summed up the view:
“Now we’re seeing a springtime of hope across the Middle East.”
Others, including Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, cited a litany of events to back the view-among them, elections in Iraq, Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, a new president for Palestinians and women voters in Kuwait.

By contrast, the European presence was more subdued. European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson spoke about opening trade in services while European Parliament President Josep Borrell talked of the need for proper parliamentary democracy.

It was a far cry from the first meeting two years ago, when U.N. Secretary- General Kofi Annan showed up to talk about Middle East peace with then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Russia’s foreign minister and a top EU presidency delegation.

There was plenty of talk about and hope for the region’s economic future, encapsulated in the organisers’ theme for the meeting-“Seizing the Moment”. But the economic mountain that the region must climb was always in the background.

The World Bank said the volatile region needed growth rates of 6 to 7 per cent annually over the next 20 years if it was to avoid unemployment rates of 25 per cent. Growth, on average, has been around 3.7 per cent.

The EU’s Mandelson also graphically pointed to a lack of commercial dynamism. “The countries of the Middle East and North Africa together have fewer non-oil exports than a country like Hungary,” he said.

Arab officials and regional business executives made up the vast majority of attendees, prompting one WEF official to say it had moved from an international meeting with a regional tilt to a regional meeting with an international element.

So, perhaps hoping to inject something new into the gathering, the WEF closed the meeting by announcing that after three years in Jordan, next year’s meeting would be in Egypt.