In spite of unprecedented improvements in technological readiness, the Arab World continues to struggle to innovate and create broad-based opportunities for its youth. Government-led investment alone will not suffice to channel the energies of society toward more private sector initiative, better education and ultimately more productive jobs and increased social mobility. The Arab World Competitiveness Report 2018 published by the World Economic Forum and the World Bank Group outlines recommendations for the Arab countries to prepare for a new economic context.
The gap between the competitiveness of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and of the other economies of the region, especially the ones affected by conflict and violence, has further increased over the last decade. However, similarities exist as the drop in oil prices of the past few years has forced even the most affluent countries in the region to question their existing social and economic models. Across the entire region, education is currently not rewarded with better opportunities to the point where the more educated the Arab youth is, the more likely they are to remain unemployed. Financial resources, while available through banks, are rarely distributed out of a small circle of large and established companies; and a complex legal system limits access to resources locked in place and distorts private initiative.
At the same time, a number of countries in the region are trying out new solutions to previously existing barriers to competitiveness.
In ten years, Morocco has nearly halved its average import tariff from 18.9 to 10.5 percent, facilitated trade and investment and benefited from sustained growth.
The United Arab Emirates has increased equity investment in technology firms from 100 million to 1.7 billion USD in just two years.
Bahrain is piloting a new flexi-permit for foreign workers to go beyond the usual sponsorship system that has segmented and created inefficiencies in the labour market of most GCC countries.
Saudi Arabia has committed to significant changes to its economy and society as part of its Vision 2030 reform plan, and Algeria has tripled internet access among its population in just five years.
“We hope that the 2018 Arab World Competitiveness Report will stimulate discussions resulting in government reforms that could unlock the entrepreneurial potential of the region and its youth,” said Philippe Le Houérou, IFC’s CEO. “We must accelerate progress toward an innovation-driven economic model that creates productive jobs and widespread opportunities.”
“The world is adapting to unprecedented technological changes, shifts in income distribution and the need for more sustainable pathways to economic growth, “added Mirek Dusek, Deputy Head of Geopolitical and Regional Affairs at the World Economic Forum. “Diversification and entrepreneurship are important in generating opportunities for the Arab youth and preparing their countries for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
With a few exceptions, such as Jordan, Tunisia and Lebanon, most Arab countries have much less diversified economies than countries in other regions with a similar level of income. For all of them, the way toward less oil-dependent economies is through robust macroeconomic policies that facilitate investment and trade, promotion of exports, improvements in education and initiatives to increase innovation and technological adoption among firms.
Entrepreneurship and broad-based private sector initiative must be a key ingredient to any diversification recipe.