As the troubled waters of the global economy continue to swirl, government and business leaders from the Middle East and around the world are gathering on the shores of the Dead Sea to chart a course out of the crisis.
“We’re hoping to build from the momentum of Davos and the G-20 summit,” said Kevin Kelly, chief executive of Heidrick & Struggles and co-chairman of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, a four-day event this week in Jordan. “As Stuart Rose, the CEO of Marks and Spencer says, we’re fed up of being fed up. Let’s come up with solutions,” Kelly said. “We’re not just seeing a financial crisis, but a leadership crisis.” Nearly 1,400 people, mostly chief executives and government policymakers, are scheduled to attend this year’s Middle East forum, including heads of state from Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Middle East political and business leaders “want to assume a bigger role … bettering global governance and furthering their position on the global scene,” said Miroslav Dusek, program creator of the conference. “Leaders here believe they have something to add to the world not only through liquidity (via oil markets) but to share their cultural and intellectual knowledge with the world. “We are in the midst of a major global transformation that we haven’t seen since World War II,” Dusek added. “There has been a major lapse in global economic governance. … We want to talk about what the Middle East can do to increase its visibility and presence on the world stage and mitigate the risk of this ever happening again.” There was a sense a year ago that the Middle East might escape the worst of the credit crisis. But its effect on oil prices — which now hover around $60 a barrel from nearly $160 a year ago — has hit the region hard. “You’ve seen a downturn in the property markets around the region; you’ve seen a downturn in a lot of commodities,” said William Spindle, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who is now business editor of the National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates. The credit crisis has slowed but not stalled growth in the Middle East. The International Monetary Fund estimates national economies there will still grow 3 percent to 6 percent in the next year, compared with the recession in the large Western economies. “It speaks to the resilience of the region that Lebanon will experience 5 percent growth,” Kelly said. But as the world’s eyes turn toward the financial crisis, forum organizers want to also keep the spotlight on geopolitical issues that plague the region, such as the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the rebuilding of Iraq. “We should not be forgetting these issues at a time when all decision-makers are burdened with tough decisions on the economy,” Dusek said. The crisis “can both be an enabler, as well as an obstacle, in effective decision-making in the region.” Unlike past forums, this year’s conference also will focus on building education, science and technology in the region, to help build an economic base away from the oil and gas industries. “Eventually, they have to get out and diversify beyond oil-based products and services,” Kelly said. What happens on the outskirts of the forum is as important as what happens in the public conference rooms, Kelly said. Closed meetings include gatherings of top leaders in the energy and financial services industries for freewheeling discussions on the future of the oil and gas industry and the effect of the credit crisis. “I know some people can be skeptical about what can be achieved at these conferences, but as much or more gets done during private one-on-one time,” Kelly said. “The more time we have together, the rapport builds and (participants) are able to let their guard down and share more openly the challenges we face.”