Oil, war and women. That is the heady mix that will comprise the main body of the agenda when some of the world’s leading minds (and a few journalists) gather at the Dead Sea Resort in Jordan tomorrow for the regional forum on the Middle East and North Africa.
The official theme of the three-day World Economic Forum event is a rather long-winded “creating a framework for prosperity and peace through public-private cooperation”, but what the 800 or so attendees really want to hear about are these three issues:
The prospects for the global oil market, and the effects a prolonged period of comparatively low prices will have on regional economies and government spending.
The regional security situation, especially relevant from the viewpoint of a country like Jordan that is on the front line of escalating conflict in the region.
The ongoing debate about the empowerment of women in the region, as a matter of economic policy as much as an issue of social justice.
In all three, there is much for the WEF to chew over. The price of oil will be on virtually everybody’s mind in an audience dominated by businesspeople, and with a big contingent from Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis are exporting more of the stuff than they have for 10 years, but despite this, and prices continuing in the mid-$50s range, the American shale industry seems to be taking the new pricing regime in its stride. Rather than driving the US producers out of business with low prices, it looks instead as though the Saudis – and the rest of the oil-producing world – are going to have to live with the new market realities.
A recent report from Goldman Sachs (which will not be attending the event, surprisingly) suggests current prices could persist for the next five years. If so, the Saudi and other Opec governments will have to prioritise government spending, and accelerate the rate of economic diversification away from oil dependency. Let’s see whether the WEF delegates agree.
On security, the WEF meets at a time of heightened regional anxiety, with recent military advances by Islamic State fighters likely to be at the forefront of the agenda. The organisation now controls territory uncomfortably close to the border with Jordan itself, which is likely to focus minds – and hopefully make forum security even more stringent.
Continuing advances have big implications for humanitarian issues in the region, which are always near the top of WEF agendas. King Abdullah of Jordan spoke eloquently of his country’s refugee problem a couple of years ago, but it has become even more pressing since. Expect that to be a major theme.
Also surprisingly, the Iranians are not represented at the Dead Sea (barring a last-minute surprise appearance), although they will be on everybody’s mind as the deadline for a nuclear deal with the US approaches.
Like the WEF annual meeting in Davos, the participants at the Dead Sea will be overwhelmingly male, but they will pay their respects to one of the big regional issues: the role of women in business, society and politics.
One of the very first sessions is billed a “a vision for gender progress”. WEF meetings are predictably in favour of moves towards female empowerment, not least because of the economic benefits from greater inclusion and its effects on productivity. But it is a tricky subject for a regional audience.
Two years ago, the Dead Sea was the scene of a major initiative by the Americans on the Palestinian question, with the secretary of state John Kerry pledging a US$4 billion injection to the Palestinian economy as a plank in the strategy to revive the peace process with Israel.
The $4bn fund was to have been administered by Tony Blair, the head of the Middle East “Quartet”, but, perhaps reflecting the deteriorating situation in Palestine as well as the rest of the region, little has been heard of it since. An update would be timely.
The Middle East WEF meets at a crucial time for the region. What it needs above all is wisdom, not sophistry.
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