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‘It cannot be business as normal:’ Middle East leaders call for change amid COVID-19

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The third day of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Davos Agenda brought together leaders from across the Middle East region to discuss what policies, practices and partnerships needed to effectively foster stakeholder capitalism.

The annual WEF event held in Davos, Switzerland, was rescheduled from late last year due to organizer concerns relating to the coronavirus pandemic with the ongoing event dubbed “The Davos Agenda.” The event will be followed by special annual meeting of leaders in Singapore in May.

On Tuesday, leaders from across the Middle East, including Abdulla Bin Touq al-Mari, the Minister of Economy for the UAE, Anas Alfaris, President of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Khalid Humaidan, CEO of the Bahrain Economic Development Board, and Henadi Al Saleh, Chair of the Board of Directors of Kuwaiti-based logistics firm Agility, took to the stage to discuss how stakeholder capitalism can be embraced within the region. The panel is moderated by Al Arabiya Senior Presenter Lara Habib.

Al-Mari said that the UAE has sought to take a proactive approach to the COVID-19 crisis across social and economic sectors. In particular, the minister noted the efforts put in place to support distance learning from the onset of the pandemic.

“Distance learning was something that was one of the big issues before COVID-19 most of the educators were against. When COVID-19 came in distance learning came in on the spot, this shows you how the UAE was very proactive,” the minister said.

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“One of the most important parts [of the COVID-19 pandemic] for the UAE and the world is we are not experts in the pandemic … we took a step back and look at the issues and see how to move the economy forward amid COVID-19. One of the laws is the foreign company law that led to 100 percent foreign ownership … We’re looking to reinforce our anti-money laundering system and enhance tourism … What we are really focusing on at the moment is how the economy of the UAE can unlock its potential moving forward,” the minister explained.

Al-Saleh called for more private sector engagement in helping foster a post-pandemic recovery.

“With what we’re going through right now, the twin shocks of the oil crisis and COVID is really taking its toll. It really calls for a change and a call to action, it cannot be business as normal,” she said.

This change is going to require “a cultural and mindset shift,” Al Saleh said, adding that “it’s critical that the private sector is deeply engaged throughout this process.”

In Bahrain, Humaidan said authorities have been focusing heavily on fintech and digitzation as future growth sectors for the Kingdom. E-payments last year surged threefold compared to prior to the pandemic, he explained.

“One thing is clear is that COVID is probably spelling the death of cash, the government of Bahrain no longer accepts cash, only electronic payments. This is important, this will add transparency … we expect the private sector the follow,” Humaidan said.

Saudi Arabia: A tech hub for the region and beyond

In Saudi Arabia, authorities have been ramping up changes in line with the Kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan which plans to prepare the country for a post-hydrocarbon age with huge investments in tourism and technology.

“There’s no secret that we have ambitions to be a tech hub in the region and beyond. The Vision 2030 deployed many national vision realization programs with defined objectives that included unlocking potential and unlocking non-oil sectors,” Alfaris said.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the Kingdom’s strategy for the country’s giant sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF). The Crown Prince estimated that the total assets of the PIF exceed 7 trillion and 500 billion riyals in 2030, adding that the government is committed to pumping 150 billion riyals annually into Saudi Arabia’s economy from the fund itself.

“Recently the Crown Prince announced the new five-year PIF strategy that will focus on localizing cutting edge technologies … with the very strong objective of partnering with innovative and disruptive companies around the world,” he added.

Alfaris also called attention to NEOM, a futuristic city spread over a 26,500 square kilometer area, as an example of the Kingdom’s growth in the technology sector.

“We are also seeing a living example in NEOM which is becoming a living laboratory and a model for new future cities,” he said.

Developments are still going on at the city, with the Kingdom’s Crown Prince, who also sits as Chairman of the Board of Directors of NEOM, announcing last week the launch of “THE LINE,” a new 170-kilometer (km) belt of hyper-connected communities at NEOM, designed without cars or roads and in concert with nature.

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Earlier in the event, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged global leaders to avoid starting a “new Cold War,” and called for global unity to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chinese leader also reaffirmed Beijing’s ambitious climate pledges to slash carbon emissions by 65 percent by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 – both significant commitments as China emits a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases.

Russian Presdient Vladimir Putin is also reported to be addressing WEF this week. Putin has not participated in Davos since 2009 when he was Russia’s Prime Minister.

Read more:

China’s President Xi warns Davos virtual forum against ‘new cold war’

Putin to address World Economic Forum in Davos for first time since 2009

Davos 2021 summit moved to Singapore due to COVID-19 pandemic: WEF