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Hope at the Jeddah Economic Forum

In Saudi Arabia, as long as we think that throwing money at any issue is the solution, we will only contribute to the problem

Faisal J. Abbas

Published: Updated:

Having lived outside of my hometown of Jeddah for more than half of my life, I eagerly await the annual Jeddah Economic Forum (JEF) for an opportunity to get a flavor of what has changed in the city, to re-connect with my friends and listen to a number of globally renowned speakers share their experiences, visions and insights.

Over the past 14 years, JEF has been a platform for dozens of inspirational speakers which included heads of state, prime ministers, entrepreneurs, academics as well as a number of Saudi Arabia’s finest and most influential movers and shakers.

However, the past 14 years have seen Jeddah change dramatically as well.

This is no longer the quiet, cozy city it once was.

Internal challenges

With an estimated population of nearly five million people, Jeddah has become a busy, crowded, metropolis where it is almost impossible to avoid road congestion and where there is a growing demand for almost everything; from desalinated water, to food, to electricity to schools and hospitals.

Of course, the growing demands have not been specific to Jeddah but to Saudi Arabia as a whole, which saw its population grow more than 333 percent over the last four decades.

As long as we think that throwing money at any issue is the solution to it, then we will only be contributing to the problem rather than fixing it

Faisal J. Abbas

What this meant is that contrary to what many other Arab states suffered/are suffering, Saudi Arabia’s biggest challenge was its own political stability and economic prosperity.

Indeed, as oil-rich and resourceful as it is, the kingdom needs to ensure a sustainable future for the growing number of people.

Hence, it was almost natural to see JEF’s agenda shift over the past 14 years from having an international focus to being more and more focused on resolving local issues such as unemployment, empowering youth and discussing housing problems.

Of course, the added-value of addressing these local issues under the JEF umbrella is that we get to do so with global expertise on-board.

This year I couldn’t help but “raise my shemagh” in respect to one particular speaker: “financial dignity” and poverty-eradication expert, John Hope Bryant.

‘The solution isn’t oil’

I first met Bryant in 2012 during his first visit to the kingdom and while it was clear that his enthusiasm for his cause didn’t fade away, what did change is how much he now further understands Saudi and regional issues.

Bryant got it right when he said “the solution isn’t oil, its people” before he correctly pointed out “there is nothing wrong neither with Saudi Arabia nor with the MENA region.”

I couldn’t agree more; this part of the world certainly is thriving with talent, energy and ambition.

What we generally lack – in my opinion – is discipline and the perseverance, particularly when it comes to work.

Bryant describes this as “a crisis of virtues and values,” and again, I can’t help but agree entirely.

So long as a person believes that a parent, tribe, caretaker or government will always provide for them, then that person will never rely on him/herself.

Similarly, as long as we think that throwing money at any issue is the solution to it, then we will only be contributing to the problem rather than fixing it.

What we need is to once again establish the importance of work and the value of money.

A recent study commissioned by the Saudi SEDCO group showed that 89 percent of Saudi youth don’t keep track of their spending, that 46 percent of them also rely on their parents for funding big purchases and that 80 percent of youth income is spent on mobile phones and travel. That isn’t an encouraging start.

However, that is exactly why we should have hope in the Jeddah Economic Forum.
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Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, he is a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist who is working on an upcoming book on Arab Media. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies. He blogs for The Huffington Post since 2008, a recipient of many media awards and a member of the British Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, the John Adams Society as well as an associate member of the Cambridge Union Society. He can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.