Saudi minister at ‘Peace to Prosperity’ workshop: Proper planning is key

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The younger population and proper planning is “essential” to creating economic prosperity in the West Bank and in Gaza, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State Mohammed al-Sheikh said during a panel discussion at the ‘Peace to Prosperity’ workshop in Bahrain on Wednesday.

“If you look at the demographics in the region they are very close, it is a young population. The young population looks at the world differently since they are connected on their apps and they live off these phones and the way you do business is different,” al-Sheikh said.

The panel, titled “Unleashing Economic Potential”, focused on one of the pillars of US senior White House adviser Jared Kuschner’s Middle East peace plan which is meant to provide an economic pathway forward to resolve the political issues between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

Asked by moderator Richard Sandler, the director of the Milken Institute, about how Saudi Arabia can be used as a case study to unleash the economic potential of Gaza and the West Bank, Al-Sheikh said that the Kingdom spent “significant time on planning.”

“The Kingdom looked to diversify the economy and carry out the structural changes to be less reliant, as a government, on oil revenue. It requires a real commitment and hard work and buy in from everybody,” al-Sheikh said, adding that small-to-medium enterprises are also at the front and center of the Kingdom's Vision 2030.

“With this plan trying to connect the countries in the region and not focusing on one small area I think is very important because there is greater opportunity and potential if all the countries that are part of the plan are connected economically,” he added.

Madame Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and one of the panelists, stressed that employment opportunities are very important.

“There is 30 percent unemployment in the West Bank… and 50 percent (unemployment) in Gaza. The background of that is the working population. You have a very quickly growing population, about five million at the moment between the two territories,” Lagarde said. She added that this will probably double by 2050, and in 2030, 60 percent of population will be of working age.

While most of the panelists highlighted that peace is essential to achieving economic prosperity and secure investments, al-Sheikh disagreed, stating that hope amongst people, especially the Palestinians, is as important.

"Everything that we’re talking about today took place 25 years ago," al-Sheikh said citing the Oslo Accords signed in 1995, which marked the first time Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) formally recognized one another. Al-Sheikh added that "there was no peace back then, but there was true genuine hope that there was going to be peace at the end of this process, especially the Palestinians."

"It was a very similar structure (to the Middle East peace plan). The only difference today actually that I see from the structure that was back then was the inclusion of the private sector up front. Back then, it was predominantly international organizations and governments hoping that they could actually transform the West Bank and Gaza and then attract foreign investment," al-Sheikh said.

In response to al-Sheikh's point, Tony Elumelu, the chairman of Heirs Holdings & founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation in Nigeria, said that as an investor, he looks for peace and security in countries his company invests in, but that hope is as important as well.

“Something that tells a lot to me when I make an investment is the private sector and the environment are they doing well? That to me is a key point… the ideas here will only be anchored with small and medium scale enterprises making sure we have inclusive growth that brings all to the table, women to the table young people to the table and increase hope, security and peace,” Elumelu said.

The conference aims to address the $50 billion Middle East economic plan, which hopes to set up a global investment fund to “lift the Palestinian and Arab state economies” and construct a $5 billion transportation corridor that would connect the West Bank with Gaza.

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