Frank Kane: Crying shame as Middle East misses out on World Economic Forum event

Frank Kane has the inside scoop on the Middle East event's 'postponement' due to security fears.

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After Davos comes, as surely as spring follows winter, the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the Middle East and North Africa (Mena). Well, this year it doesn’t, I can inform you.

The annual rhythm of the WEF calendar has, for several years, followed a cycle whereby Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt alternated with the Dead Sea resort in Jordan for the honour of staging the regional gathering of pol­icymakers, business leaders and global shapers. It has occasionally varied. I attended a forum in Istanbul a few years ago, but that was billed as a meeting for Mena, eastern Europe and Central Asia. There was also one held in Marrakech, Morocco, a while ago.

But generally it has been Egypt and Jordan alternately hosting the event at their prime resort loca­tions.

This year, neither country will stage a Mena forum, because it has been cancelled. “Postponed” is the term being used at WEF’s Geneva HQ, but it amounts to the same thing. It will not take place this year. The event has fallen victim to the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai — “in light of the current situation”, in the words of a WEF spokesman. It was Sharm’s turn, but after the downing of the Russian jet over the Sinai last year, there was a reassessment of the safety of staffers and delegates, and it was decided that it was too risky.

“They [WEF] felt they couldn’t take on the liability of Sharm,” said one person involved in the conversations between WEF and Mena representatives.

The Egyptians, who were made aware of the decision ahead of the recent Davos gathering, were understandably unhappy, and scaled back their presence in Switzerland in mute protest.

If Sharm was judged too dangerous, then surely the logical thing would be to revert to the Dead Sea? But according to my source, that would have alienated the Egyptians even more, with the clear inference that the Jordanians were better at security than they.

There was also the question of the cost, traditionally borne by the host country, which can be considerable in terms of venue fees, accommodation and extra security. Financially challenged Jordan bore the brunt last year.

It could, of course, be staged in the comparatively affluent Arabian Gulf, with the UAE – a long-standing partner of the WEF – the obvious choice with its excellent infrastructure and experience of staging big events.

But then other rivalries of the WEF Middle East grouping kicked in. “There is a certain amount of jealousy of the UAE, they always seem to get the pick of the best regional events, so there was opposition to that idea too,” says my mole.

So that’s that really. The WEF will look instead at “focused engagements in key economies in the region” such as the forthcoming Government Summit in Dubai – with a special appearance by Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the WEF.

My source sums up the disappointment felt by many WEF supporters in the region: “There was a lot of disappointment about the Sharm decision, and not just by the Egyptians. We felt it was a shame that, with the Middle East standing at the centre of world events more than ever, WEF didn’t make more effort to provide a platform.”

I can only echo that. Shame.

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