SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt: Unemployment, the growing young population and the role of women in society dominated much of the discussion of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, which moves on to its third and final day today in Sharm El-Sheikh.
While carefully skirting around the trickiest regional political issues, the forum focused on these three topics that ultimately relate to increasing public participation in the economic process, thereby giving rise to a typical discussion on economic growth and its related areas of global integration and investment.
The region s demography was highlighted as the most pressing issue. With one third of the population in the Middle East and North Africa under the age of 20 and two-thirds under 30, the immediate pressure to generate job opportunities presents a substantial challenge to governments that have historically dominated regional economies. The World Bank estimates that Arab countries need to create 90 million jobs by 2020.
This is more than the number of jobs that have been created in the region during the past 50 years, says Princess Lolwah Al Faisal, vice-chair of the Board of Trustees and general supervisor of Effat College in Saudi Arabia. People have termed these demographic changes as a youth bulge. Some see it as a threat. I, however, subscribe to the alternative view, which sees this youth bulge as a huge asset that the region needs to invest in.
There was little contention about the nature of economic reforms taking place in Egypt and elsewhere, which seek to integrate countries into a global economy and encourage private enterprise by selling state assets and implementing legislation favorable to a free market.
There was, however, general concern about ensuring a productive role for youth in a growing economy. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif explains that vocational training is an immediate solution to address the disparity between the required and available skills, but a comprehensive reform of educational systems is necessary in the long-run.
Our education system needs massive change, adds Nemir Kirdar, founder, president and chief executive officer of Investcorp. We need to revise our educational programs to see if we are producing a competitive workforce for the future that has the skills necessary to get jobs and compete in a worldwide market.
Women similarly need to be included as full participants in the economic, social and political process. The potential of this part of the world will never be achieved unless there is full participation of women, says Shafik Gabr, chairman and managing director of Artoc Group for Investment and Development and chairman of the Arab Business Council.
Mona Zulficar, attorney at Shalakany Law Office, adds that the political role of women should be guaranteed by law through reserved seats for females in parliament. Such a law had existed in Egypt from 1979 until 1987, when it was deemed unconstitutional. Now we are fighting to reinstate that, and the women s movement in Egypt has managed to put that on the agenda of the president and we will have a new election law with a quota for women, says Zulficar.
There was a continuous mention of democracy as an underlying theme, but few specific measures were suggested to increase the accountability of government. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora concedes that some recent elections in the region were like a charade but anticipates an improvement of the democratic process in several countries through increased activity of civil society.
And while most participants agreed that democracy is a necessary ambition, there were divergent views on what it means. At the end of the day, democracy is democracy, says Siniora. There is nothing called Arab democracy and Western democracy. Democracy is one thing: you have to go through the ballot box and to make people express their views.
Others emphasized the need for plurality and the futility of elections in patriarchal societies with extreme allegiance to ethnicity or religion. We don t yet have the heritage to accept such principles that are the backbone and essence of democracy, says Massouma Al Mubarak, Kuwait s minister of planning and minister of state for administrative development affairs.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Arab governments have been under intense pressure from the outside world and especially from the United States to change their political systems. Arab officials attending the forum repeatedly emphasized the need to allow sufficient time for democratic institutions to develop and for society to adapt to a changing political system. A long road still lies before us in continuing to build our democracy, says President Hosni Mubarak.
Meanwhile, American politicians expressed their desire for homegrown political change in the region while reserving their right to oppose elected governments which they disagree with, such as the current Hamas-led government in Palestine.
Democracy is not agreement with America or subservience to America, says U.S. Senator Gordon Smith. Democracy is not love or acceptance of Israel … Democracy is about free people able to change their governments and improve their lives through the ballot box instead of at the end of the barrel of a gun.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick adds that his government does not necessarily oppose religious political movements and that there are various forms of political Islam. Our problem with Hamas is not that they adhere to Islam; it s that they adhere to terrorism [and] they refuse their neighbor s right to exist, says Zoellick.
Several regional hot topics were not addressed in the forum. The Iran nuclear issue was avoided altogether by the absence of an official Iranian delegation. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, explained that the Iranian government was not invited because he did not want the nuclear issue to hijack discussions.
The growing dispute between Lebanon and Syria was similarly excluded from substantial discussion; Schwab says that the Syrian government was invited but declined to attend.
The Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who endured a whirlwind of criticism from the region following the cartoon debacle, could not attend according to Schwab because of scheduling issues.