Arab Economies ‘Punching Below their Weight’

Ben Flanagan

DEAD SEA: The Arab world is “punching below its weight” and its economy should be two or three times bigger than it is today, the World Economic Forum heard on Sunday, as business and government leaders proposed new ways to help the region grow.
The Middle East and North Africa is home to hundreds of millions of people yet its gross domestic product is equivalent to that of just a single country, one panelist said at the closing session of the forum, which was held in Jordan.
Alain Bejjani, CEO of Dubai-based conglomerate Majid Al Futtaim Holding and a co-chair of the event, said a new economic model for the region was “badly needed.”
“We need to engage in more cooperation, we need to talk together, we need to work together. And we need the private sector … to come forward with an economic vision (which) can actually double or triple the GDP of the region.”
“We live in a region of (hundreds of millions of) people, but actually produce less than a small country of 5 or 6 million people elsewhere in the world.”
Bejjani cited the example of the ride-hailing app Careem, which Uber recently agreed to acquire for $3.1 billion. While this is positive for the region, Bejjani said that the dollar value pales in comparison with that of US-headquartered Lyft, which has been valued at $24 billion.
“This is the discount of the region … This is one of the first times where we see how much it is costing us to do business in this region,” Bejjani said.
“Should we abandon, and jump ship? No. What we should do is double down on actually bringing this region up, because we have so much at stake. And also we have so many opportunities and room for development.”
Bejjani said he was determined to find a new economic model to allow the region to find its true potential.
“I’m going to be doubling down on this idea of actually putting forward an economic vision for the region, that should empower the region to actually double or triple its GDP,” he said.
“(We need) to find a new economic model that can integrate this region and allow it to actually punch at its weight, whereas today we are punching below our weight.”
Mirek Dusek, a member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum (WEF), said that several concrete initiatives had emerged from the forum to support a new economic model for the region.
For example, the UAE said it would offer five-year visas to entrepreneurs behind the top 100 startups that were selected to attend the forum.
Another initiative announced at the forum involved the WEF’s Global Shapers, a community of 20-30-year olds, launching two hubs in East and West Jerusalem, which will work together to build more peaceful and equitable societies.
Another area to start greater cooperation in the region is by developing and encouraging travel in the region, said Rania Al-Mashat, minister of tourism of Egypt.
“Tourism is one way to overcome the unfortunate rise of protectionism and nationalism,” she said. It is also a way to increase economic growth and employment, the minister added.

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