World Economic Forum meetings are, as one former Prime Minister put it over a nightcap, part private high-level talks, part networking and a fair portion of theatre. “Theatre is good, just not in large doses” he rightly declared.
That is a succinct description of what transpired in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh this week at the World Economic Forum meeting.
There was plenty to digest and discuss, but as usual the many of the more memorable thoughts came in the networking lounge over an espresso. I spoke to the CEO of a Gulf investment authority who, during our conversation said they really want to get it right this time, since they are blessed with the “three digits.”
The conversation continues, as I try to bluff my way through what “three digits” means. After another minute my curiosity gets the better of me and I confess my ignorance. “Three digits,” he tells me with a broad smile, “is oil — anything over $100 and we are in three digit territory,” he said, adding that: “We can do a lot with three digits.”
There is no doubt about that and I confirm that after 20 years of covering OPEC meetings and visiting production facilities from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arabian Gulf, I know it costs about $4 to $6 per barrel for the major Middle Eastern producers to get their crude to market. To put it crudely, that is a profit of about $120 a barrel at today’s prices.
Spend it wisely
While the Gulf producers are happy to watch the savings roll in, they are very aware that the world is watching to see how they plan to use it. It was, no doubt, the number one issue on the agenda at this regional meeting. Somewhat boldly some members of the Arab community, which are not blessed with the same huge natural resources, spoke up in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, the tall, silver haired reformist, noted that one cannot force money where it does not want to go, but, “I believe that real opportunities exist today in the region, whether it’s in infrastructure, whether it’s in capacity building, education and other aspects of it.” Egypt is attempting to be the back office to the Middle East — why set up in Bangalore if you can capture the diversity of language speakers and low cost in your own backyard?
A former government official from Jordan, now running a private equity group, was more direct. Reem Badran is CEO of Kuwaiti Jordanian Holding Company — a firm funded with Gulf money. She says, “There is room for the oil producing countries to give a hand to the non oil producing countries to make these types of imbalances and gaps less and everybody would flourish at the end of the day.”
There is a great deal of money from the six Gulf countries flowing into real estate development projects throughout North Africa. The key now is to expand that brief to include factories and even schools. The second most talked about issue had to be development of human capital. During the final plenary panel of the meeting which I chaired, all four leading businessmen (and woman) talked about the sense of urgency to do more. Money is being deployed into education in every market, but these business people admitted they need to be more involved to insure that the skills needed are being taught in universities and vocational schools. If not, the over reliance on expatriate workers will remain. The most pressing concern, and it was reinforced on my panel, is that 100 million more people will need jobs over the next ten years.
If that is not an incentive to use the “three digits” wisely, I am not sure what is.
John Defterios is the presenter of CNN’s Market Place Middle East.