Sabria S. Jawhar
SOME of the greatest stories I ever covered and some of the most interesting people I ever met were at the Jeddah Economic Forum, the annual event that draws the world’s top economists and government leaders for three days to discuss and exchange ideas that will make the Middle East and the rest of the world economically vibrant.
All of that came to a grinding halt last month when it was announced that 10th JEF has been postponed for up to four months. It’s hard to believe the stated reason for its postponement that JEF officials failed to get the proper permits.
As long as I have been covering the event there always have been nervous comments from organizers that they don’t have the right permits, but the show always goes on. Really, who is going to say no to people like Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Queen Rania after they had been signed up to be keynote speakers.
If there is a will there is a way to get JEF off the ground.I won’t speculate on the true reasons for the postponement but I hope “postponement” doesn’t mean cancellation because, if anything, Jeddah over the years has become synonymous with the formulas of economic solutions for the region.
Granted, it has lost a bit of its luster in the past couple of years with organization a bit more haphazard and details left to chance on opening day.But we can’t underestimate the importance of holding JEF this year given the disastrous economic downturn that appears to be becoming progressively gloomier with each passing month.
Now that a real crisis is at hand and a gathering of the best financial minds are paramount to the region to find solutions to financial instability, Saudi Arabia can’t afford not to have the economic forum.The region’s primary concern over the last decade or so is to wean itself from oil revenue by developing projects that create jobs, provide homes to residents and establish an infrastructure that will serve future generations.
As I have said in the past, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the construction of the six economic cities and the expansion projects in Makkah are testament to our commitment to economic prosperity beyond oil. Neighboring United Arab Emirates is on a similar mission with Dubai’s ongoing projects to transform itself into a tourist destination.
Abu Dhabi aspires to become a cultural center and leader in green building and sustainability with its ambitious plans to develop Masdar City as the world’s first zero-carbon community.Kuwait, Oman and Qatar have similar ambitions. But real estate developers, investors and builders have scaled back major projects.
The Nakheel Harbor & Tower, Al Salam City, the Western Region Aluminium Smelter Power Plant and other major multi-billion-dirham projects in the UAE have been suspended. Saudi builders have refocused their energies on infrastructure, a sure sign of fallback strategy to continue building as other projects are placed on hold.
In the early days of the economic crisis we optimistically thought that the leading Middle East countries would be immune to the fallout experienced in the Untied States and Europe. But as with all economic meltdowns, the ripple effect can’t be denied.Considering that we are in a financial state never witnessed by government leaders here, JEF stood as a potential answer on how to deal with the current problems.
But JEF organizers seem to have lost sight of the big picture and what JEF could offer to the world at large. Seriously, given the high stakes of the hard realties of a faltering economy, how could we not stage JEF when the region needs it most?Some may quibble that I am overstating the importance of the forum, but having covered it for four years and meeting the best financial and socially-conscious minds from the West and Middle East, it’s hard to believe that someone somewhere didn’t recognize the value of the forum and find a speaker of the caliber of a Clinton or Albright or the Queen of Jordan and cut through the red tape to see this thing through. – SG