Mirek Dusek, the head of MENA for the WEF

WEF: Meeting of Minds

The MENA edition of the World Economic Forum (WEF) returns to Jordan this month with a theme of enabling generational transformation.

By Dominika Bzduchova

Hundreds of top decision-makers from around the world will meet at the Dead Sea on May 19-21 for the MENA edition of the World Economic Forum. And for the first time ever, the forum will invite some of the region’s leading entrepreneurs to be involved in the forum’s sessions.

Mirek Dusek, the head of MENA for the WEF, said the focus of the meeting will be “Enabling Generational Transformation.” The program is built around the three pillars of economic reforms, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the humanitarian crisis in the region.

What are the main pillars of the 2017 WEF on MENA?

Those following up on the region are aware that there are a number of pivotal countries, which are undergoing a reform. The established economic models are not sufficient enough for the regional demographics trends. There is a need to decouple from a resource-driven economy in order to be able to deal with the region’s wide youth unemployment.

The WEF on MENA is an opportunity for the private sector and the international community to be more helpful in these reform efforts. A lot of spaces that used to be a little more closed-off or strictly governmental domains are now being rethought. We are seeing that in Saudi Arabia with the Saudi Vision 2030, where they are openly asking the private sector and the international community to help them develop a knowledge economy.

The catch here is that we have obviously heard a lot of visions, but what matters is their actual implementation. The Forum represents an opportunity to bring global best practice on what has worked and what has not worked. Frankly speaking, many of us know the solutions. However, it is all about trade-offs and being honest about what it takes—both socially and business-wise—to reform your education and other key sectors. We expect those topics to be very high on the forum’s agenda. I have had consultations with various decision-makers all over the region and there is great openness to engage in this sort of dialogue.

The second pillar relates to a concept, which the WEF has been spearheading for a while, called “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Developed by our Founder and Chairman, Professor Klaus Schwab, it captures a global trend that has direct implications for societies across the world—the convergence of different technologies that are ultimately changing industries as well as societies.

We hear a lot about artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, and technology augmentations of human potential. At the WEF we look at what these actually mean. For example, we are currently seeing a disruption in the transport industry where Uber and its likes are profoundly changing the market, and governments are open about the fact that they are having a very hard time trying to catch up. The question is how we think through the market changes and their implications. The market is changing too fast and it requires a redesign of the way you make regulations to allow for an adaptation process.

Our traditional model involves gathering CEOs of the biggest companies, heads of states and ministers, civil society members, and representatives of the younger generation and media. However today, for the first time as an organization, we are also capturing the Careems and the souq.coms—the disruptors of the market. These are the startups that have already entered the market and are making an impact.

We will gather a hundred of them at the Dead Sea from throughout the region and will be involving them in the summit’s conversations. Imagine sessions about the future of education or “disruptive education,” where we would have someone who is providing online Arabic educational content talking with education ministers and someone running a more traditional publishing company.

When it comes to technology innovations, we are bringing in a demonstration of how you can use Microsoft HoloLens for university lectures. We showed that in Davos; it is an example of how an augmented reality technology can help medical students learn more about how human body works.

Though what I just mentioned above is potentially very positive, we cannot forget we exist in a very fragile environment. We all understand that anything can also be disrupted in a negative way, e.g. if there is a spillover of the region’s existing conflicts. Therefore, we have a tradition here in Jordan to include the geopolitical implications in our discussions. We do talk about the humanitarian imperative and this constitutes the third pillar of the 2017 WEF on MENA. The attendees will include foreign policy ministers and representatives of European governments and the United States alongside international organizations and non-governmental actors.

Who will be attending the event?

This year we witness a significant interest from numerous European actors, primarily from within the realm of the European-Arab world relationship and the refugee crisis framework. Among others, we will have the German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who will act as a co-chair of the summit. She has a holistic approach to security, which is linking the socio-economic development of countries like Jordan to the security of Europe, and I personally find that approach very needed.

What are your personal aspirations for this year’s summit?

Change is possible; we have seen a great deal of boldness, particularly from the Saudi government, to openly spell out the existing challenges, which I think is very refreshing. We would like to showcase that you can actually achieve change, especially by showing how startups as well as long-established businesses are embracing the digital revolution.

I do believe there is an untold story of the Middle East. Although an outsider’s perspective on the region remains to be dominated by the simplistic lens of conflict, there are so many successes and achievements. On a practical level, there is an enormous space where new markets can be created, mainly in the digital sphere. A very interesting trend to be observed at the moment is how family businesses, which have traditionally been focused on the brick-and-mortar shopping malls, franchising, and hotels and restaurants ownership, are now waking up to the digital opportunity, because some of the markets are being disrupted by e-commerce startups. So the whole issue of financing startups in the region that is known for having a lack of VC funding appears in stark contrast with the existence of very liquid families who are becoming active investors or even creators of startups. This is one of the “practical level” issues that we are going to mainstream at the forum.