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World Economic Forum to Discuss Middle East Reforms - 2004-05-07


The World Economic Forum is sponsoring a three-day conference next week in Jordan to debate and set goals for economic and political reforms that could help stabilize the Middle East. The reconstruction of Iraq and the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are on the agenda.

World Economic Forum Managing Director Fred Sicre says the Middle East cannot afford to put off much-needed reforms.

"From the Forum's perspective, we see this region at a tipping point," he said. "And we believe that our global security and stability and our road to that stability passes first and foremost through the Middle East. And, what that entails is finding a solution to Iraq. It entails finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But it also and fundamentally entails reform, on a political, social and economic front."

Those issues are on the agenda of the three-day conference that is set to take place next week in Jordan. Participants will also look at ways to strengthen the private sector and women's development programs.

Representatives of Arab governments and private industry are expected to join the discussions, including Syria and Libya. Mr. Sicre says delegates from Israel are also expected to attend.

Jordan's planning minister, Bassem Awadallah, insists the impasse in the Middle East peace process can no longer serve as an excuse to delay reforms.

"We always keep saying that, even if the Palestinian question were resolved tomorrow, there are still other issues that need to be tabled [put on the table]," said Bassem Awadallah. "The Palestinian question has nothing to do with empowerment of women in certain parts of the Arab world. When we speak about education system, that is an issue that needs to be addressed."

Mr. Awadallah also stresses the urgent need to improve the economy and create jobs. He describes the high rate of unemployment among the region's youth as a time bomb waiting to explode.

Fred Sicre says the conference will capitalize on the growing awareness of regional leaders, businessmen and ordinary citizens of the need for reforms to better compete in the world market.

"The leadership of the Arab world is realizing that the status quo spells disaster for them and their own regimes," said Mr. Sicre.

Planning Minister Awadallah says the conference should set some goals and a six-year deadline to achieve them.

"It will help people in the Middle East that this is a real thing," he said. "They will put into perspective all these abstract connotations and terminology about reform and governance in practical objectives that can be reached within a specific time frame."

The World Economic Forum's first regional conference took place in Casablanca in 1994, as part of the Oslo peace process for the Middle East. But Mr. Sicre says the forum stopped the meetings a few years later, because they had become too politicized as the peace process began to falter.

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