Jordan Pulse

Jordanians questioning the value of hosting World Economic Forum

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Article Summary
Earlier this month, Jordan hosted the World Economic Forum for the 10th time, but a number of analysts charge that the gatherings have not produced any tangible economic results for the kingdom.

For years, Jordanians have been accustomed to seeing placards and posters along the highway to the airport and the road to the Dead Sea resorts welcoming guests to a meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the Middle East and North Africa. Since 2003, Jordan has hosted the event 10 of the 17 times it has been held in the region.

Bringing the WEF to Jordan was originally seen as an opportunity to showcase the kingdom’s economic potential to world leaders, politicians, businesspeople, innovators and academics and to attract foreign investment. King Abdullah II worked hard on getting the WEF to the kingdom, making use of his ties to Klaus Schwab, the organization’s founder.

Abdullah opened this year’s WEF on April 6. More than 1,000 visitors, including top government officials and leaders and company CEOs, took part in the two-day conference. “Building New Platforms of Cooperation” was the main theme of the gathering.

According to the Jordan Times, “The event focused on four transformational imperatives: shaping a new economic and social model for the region, environmental stewardship in the Arab world, finding common ground in a multi-conceptual world and the fourth industrial revolution in the Arab world.”

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Sponsored jointly by the King Abdullah II Fund for Development and the Swiss-based WEF, this year's meeting included a special session on the fourth industrial revolution involving the top 100 Arab startsups. Unlike previous meetings, however, there were no announcements of major economic agreements or investment projects for the kingdom. In contrast, in 2015 at the WEF Dead Sea, Jordan had announced the signing of 19 agreements worth a total investment of $8.5 billion.

Instead in a speech delivered April 6, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz noted that the mere fact of the WEF continuing to be held in Jordan and doing so for the 10th time underscored the kingdom’s position as a venue embodying cooperation and partnership and where major world challenges are discussed in a bid to find solutions.

The forum convened at a time when Jordanians are feeling pressure from the country's waning economic performance, rising unemployment and poverty rates and increasing foreign debt. For the vast majority of Jordanians, the WEF has had no positive effect on their economic well-being.

Speaking to the press on April 6, Razzaz called unemployment the biggest challenge facing his government, asserting, “The stockpile of unemployment is huge.” The latest official statistics put the unemployment rate in March at 18.7%.

A few days later, on April 11, Qasem al-Zoubi, director of general of the Statistics Department, told Al-Mamlaka TV that the absolute poverty rate now stands at 15.7% in Jordan, a country with a population of more than 9 million people.

Awni al-Dawood, business editor at the daily Addustour, wrote an April 8 column summing up the WEF meeting. He said that of the 100 Arab startups highlighted at the conference, 27 were Jordanian, but added that these ventures will be supported by Bahrain. He also noted the importance of focusing on investment in the tourism sector. Other than that, he pointed to political topics, highlighting Jordan’s position on the Palestinian issue and in particular its stance on Jerusalem.

In contrast, Osama al-Rantisi, editor of the Awal news website, challenged the government to cite one project that had materialized since Jordan has been hosting the WEF. In a column on April 6, he noted the irony of tens of impoverished villagers suffering from unemployment and poor infrastructure only a few kilometers from the WEF's posh venue.

In Al-Ghad on April 7, the columnist Nidal Mansour called for a complete reassessment of the “Jordanian case,” acknowledging that none of the economic reforms discussed at the WEF over the years had managed to improve the lives of Jordanians. He added that since the government is unable to carry out genuine economic reforms, it should at least offer political initiatives that will allow citizens to have a role in decision-making.

The political analyst Labib Kamhawi was skeptical of the value of holding the WEF in Jordan. He told Al-Monitor that after years of hosting the conference, Jordanians are yet to see any real achievements on the ground. “The only people who benefited are the opportunists who seek to fatten their fortunes through side deals that have nothing to do with the public interest,” he said.

Kamhawi added that the WEF is no more than an exercise in public relations and challenged anyone in the government to be transparent in outlining any real benefits from it.

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Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman who specializes in Middle East issues. He can be reached at alsharif.osama@gmail.com. On Twitter: @plato010

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