WEF is in Middle East to stay, with events this year

The chatty piece I penned in my Notebook last week – about the World Economic Forum postponing this year’s Middle East and North Africa meeting over security fears – got quite an airing in the Twittersphere and elsewhere.

So I think it’s worth a rather more serious and considered explanation of why the WEF has decided not to bring the Mena event to Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh resort this year and, moreover, why it’s important that the WEF does not turn its back on the region.

A brief recap: the WEF, rightly famous for its annual Davos meeting of the world’s business, political and intel­lectual leaders, has for a long time held a Middle East version of that event, usually (although there have been exceptions) alternating between Sharm and the Dead Sea Resort in Jordan.

This year the event has effectively been cancelled in light of the terrorist attack on the Russian airliner that killed 224 people in the Sinai Peninsula last October. Mention of the Sharm Mena gathering has been removed from the WEF website, and no alternative yet proposed.

I bumped into Klaus Schwab at the World Government Summit in Dubai this week and we had a brief chat about it. After he paid The National some generous compliments he looked me pointedly in the eye and said: “Let me ask you this: how would you react if you had the lives of 120 people as your responsibility?”

He meant that he had to consider the safety and security of the WEF delegation that would have gone to Sharm, and it was a valid point, appropriately made. As founder and chairman of WEF, a top priority has to be the well-being of his own people.

I’m not sure that’s how the Egyptians would see it, however. I explained Mr Schwab’s concern to an adviser to the country’s tourist authority, also at the Dubai Summit, who responded dismissively. The Egyptian government had conducted a full investigation into procedures at Sharm, with the help of a top international security firm. Lapses had been identified and corrected. “Lightning rarely strikes the same place twice,” he said.

The Egyptians were, I’m told, even more furious about it than I previously thought. They virtually pulled out of Davos in protest, and effectively vetoed the possible alternative venue in Jordan.

It’s easy to see why they were so upset. The country is trying to re-establish normality in the face of a vicious insurgency that has crippled its vital tourism industry. The WEF’s vote of no confidence was a big setback to that effort, and to its equally important efforts to attract foreign investment from a hesitant world.

Also at the summit was Miroslav Dusek, director of the Mena region for WEF. He was reluctant to talk about the Sharm issue, but did tell me of the WEF’s concern that it should be perceived as “turning its back” on the region.

Egyptian sensibilities and FDI aside, this is the other reason why the decision over Sharm is significant, and regrettable.

Some people dismiss WEF, and Davos in particular, as just an inconsequential talking shop where nothing is ever achieved. I don’t go along with that. It is always good to talk, and always, always better to jaw-jaw than to war-war, as they say. Dialogue and empathy are what the WEF symbolises, and nowhere are they in such urgent demand as in the Mena region today.

The WEF Mena gathering was about the only international arena where the region as a whole came together, and where regional rivals had the opportunity to discuss the issues that divide them. To abandon it because of an isolated act of terrorism was to send out all the wrong signals to the region, and to its enemies.

There is some good news, however. In our meeting by the Madinat canal, Mr Schwab was adamant that WEF was in the region to stay, that no unilateral withdrawal was planned.

Why, only recently he had visited Saudi Arabia and talked to the most senior people in the kingdom about staging a big WEF event there. Mr Dusek confirmed that was one possibility, and that two WEF events would be staged in the Middle East this year.

If that happens, it goes some way to making up for the Sharm snub. Now they will just have to win over the Egyptians.


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Frank Kane

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