May 20, 2017
DEAD SEA, Jordan — Digital start-ups run by young Arab entrepreneurs took center stage Saturday at the World Economic Forum, where participants said private sector-driven growth is key to solving the Middle East's stark economic problems, including 30 percent youth unemployment.
More than 1,100 politicians and business people came together for the forum's regional meeting. Among them were EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, CEOs from the region and the founders of 100 start-ups from the Arab world.
The forum's regional meeting was held as President Donald Trump, whose young administration is engulfed in controversy, began his first international trip with a visit to Saudi Arabia. In coming days, Trump is to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories before heading to Europe.
Mogherini said that Europe does "not see eye to eye" with the Trump administration on major issues such as trade, climate change and funding of U.N. agencies, but can "easily" work with the U.S. on the conflicts in Syria and between Israelis and Palestinians.
Europe's top diplomat warned that threatened U.S. cuts in funding U.N. agencies or humanitarian work "would create a major security issue worldwide, including in Europe."
The Syria refugee crisis has highlighted the link between aid and security. Hundreds of thousands of civil war refugees have migrated to Europe after facing increasingly difficult conditions in regional host countries, where cash-strapped aid agencies have struggled to provide basic support.
Iraqi President Fuad Masum called on investors to come to his country and help with reconstruction efforts, particularly in the northern city of Mosul, which was overrun by Islamic State extremists in 2014.
Since the fall, Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition have slowly advanced in the city, pushing back the militants.
Masum said that he hopes Mosul will be liberated "in the next few days," adding that "our country is open to all investors."
Masum has described the scope of destruction in Mosul as "horrendous."
On the business side, participants said the region's governments and institutions must provide a nurturing environment for entrepreneurs, including access to financing.
Khaled Biyari, the CEO of the Saudi Telecom Company, said the region's young population — two-thirds are under the age of 30 — can drive the transformation.
Moving to a digital economy "can allow the region and the countries in this region to leap frog," Biyari said. "They don't have to go back and do what other developed nations have (done)."
For some entrepreneurs from countries in conflict, the challenges of doing business are much more basic.
Hussein Ahmed, one of the start-up founders attending the conference, has begun exporting coffee from war-wracked Yemen to the U.S. through his company Mocha Hunters. But his efforts are complicated by frequent power outages in his troubled war-torn homeland.
"To process the coffee you need machines and machines work with electricity," he said. "Can you imagine running a business without electricity?"