Staying competitive can work - but only with the right jobs

Sooner or later policymakers across the Arabian Gulf will need to decide what kind of jobs are needed to make the leap from the repetitive to the competitive.

China's economy has seen double-digit growth over the past decade. AFP PHOTO
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Competitiveness can be a difficult concept to grasp.

The word itself doesn't really help.

It's the "titive" bit in the middle that titypically titends to be titricky.

People either say it twice or just vault over it entirely and hope for the best.

In the new abbreviated global economy of Twitter and text, "competitiveness" has lost its competitiveness.

We may have to replace it with just a lower case "c" and a smiley face.

If it is difficult to say, it can be even more difficult to achieve. At least three major conferences in Dubai last week are all competing to attract the leading names in global competitiveness.

It was a perfect storm of mispronunciation.

The competitiveness industry has never been more prosperous and it is no coincidence that this is occurring at such a poverty-stricken time for the global economy.

Even the Chinese are struggling with competitiveness these days.

Along with kung fu and the production of synthetic eggs, the Chinese are generally reckoned to be pretty darn good at competitiveness.

China's Olympic gymnast of an economy has pivoted, cartwheeled and back flipped its way to double-digit growth over the past decade while America waddled hopelessly behind in elasticated jeans.

But wage inflation in the world's most populous nation has led to what was until recently unthinkable - America winning back jobs, albeit in relatively small numbers. Now it is the kung fu panda economy that could do with losing a few pounds.

Competitiveness is often discussed as if it were an absolute when it is really a relative condition. It relies on others being uncompetitive to flourish.

For hundreds of years the cavalry was a really competitive way for small numbers of posh chaps on horses to trample over large numbers of infantry. But somewhere between 1914 and 1918, it too lost its competitiveness.

For a long time the cavalry was morose and didn't go out very much until someone suggested beefing it up with some tanks and overnight it was back in business, happily trampling over all comers.

The British Empire had an awesome cavalry that was often used to explain to countries that were not in the British Empire that they actually now were in the British Empire and that they should jolly well get used to it.

Then the British Empire became uncompetitive and created the Commonwealth Games where it could again become competitive by avoiding Cuban boxers and American sprinters.

Which brings us to today and the increasing urgency of Arabian Gulf states to achieve competitiveness in a world where old assumptions are being increasingly challenged.

Chief among these is the question of how long oil will power the world's economic engine, where most of it will come from and who will be in charge of filling its tank. This is why we see so much competitiveness-inspired introspection in this part of the world.

According to World Economic Forum rankings, most Gulf states have either maintained or in the case of the UAE, improved their competitiveness over the past year.

The gold stars dished out by the Davos mob tend to relate to such things as boosting transparency, making it easier to start a company and improving internet connectivity.

But what competitiveness is really about is jobs and creating as many high-value ones as possible. This is where policy can find itself pulling in different directions.

Regional governments are under pressure to create more jobs for their citizens and it is far easier to do this in the public rather than the private sector.

That makes the work of incentivising school leavers into technical degrees that are aligned with economic diversification agendas all the more challenging.

It's a difficult nettle to grasp but sooner or later policymakers across the region will need to decide what kind of jobs are needed to make the leap from the repetitive to the competitive. The rest is window dressing.