Photo/Illutration Borge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum (Provided by the World Economic Forum)

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently held its regional meeting on the Middle East and North Africa in Jordan to discuss the various challenges associated with the fourth industrial revolution.

With a sister center already set up in Tokyo, the WEF is looking to open affiliate centers in the Middle East to support the region's shift toward new technologies, including artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

Tsutomu Ishiai, Asahi Shimbun London bureau chief and European editor, spoke with WEF President Borge Brende about the impact of such technologies on the Arab world as well as ways to bolster regional prosperity and peace.

Excerpts from the question-and-answer session follow:


Question: What is the significance of having a World Economic Forum conference this year in the Middle East?

Brende: We are in many ways faced with two systems at the same time in the region. We see some of the countries, the quite substantial economic developments, also planning new technologies, we have a 100 start-ups there from the region. At the same time we have another system where we see governance issues, there are conflicts, there are also terrorism, radicalization and youth unemployment. What we will have to work on is that the first system takes control over the second system.

Q: Conflicts and social confusion appear to be worsening in the region. What is your assessment?

A: The latest challenge that popped up again was Libya, where things look bleaker. We also have the difficult situation in Yemen. Today, we can say that--if you look at two axes, you have that as a horizontal axis with Israel and Palestine. You have then a vertical one where you see Iran and many of the Gulf countries, or Saudi Arabia. So the Iran conflict is kind of more on some of these countries' minds than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You also see that Israel is getting closer to some of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

Q: What is the WEF’s position on normalization efforts by some of these countries with Israel?

A: The WEF is a neutral impartial organization. So we don't take sides in this conflict. What we have undertaken though during the last year is this thing called “breaking the impasse” where we bring Palestinian and Israeli business people together and they have used our platform to call for the urgency of a two-state solution.

Q: The fourth industrial revolution could be a game changer for the status quo of the region. What is your take on that?

A: In Egypt and the region, the youth bulge and the amount of young people here is just incredible--more than 50 percent under the age of 30, all the millions of jobs that have to be created in the coming years.

This needs a clear strategy for competitiveness and innovation. And what we’re trying to contribute is that we're setting up two centers for the fourth industrial revolution. Our main center is in San Francisco and a sister center is set up in Tokyo. But we are now establishing two affiliated centers in Dubai and in Riyadh, where we are focusing on all the important technologies, being artificial intelligence, machine learning, the whole blockchain, drones, the whole Internet of Things. In the fourth industrial revolution, the human capital and talent will be maybe even more important than capital. Because capital is available if you have a good idea. For countries like Jordan that has strong human capital, educated people, there is no reason why you cannot have kind of a Silicon Valley also here in Amman like you have in Tel Aviv.

Q: How do you see the future of Saudi Arabia? We all know that what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is something that cannot be accepted by international standards.

A: They apologized for that. That, I think, was very important. Saudi Arabia is the only G20 economy in the Arab world. So what will happen in Saudi Arabia moving forward will have a huge impact on the whole region. We are seeing a lot of important reforms being undertaken related to economic reforms and reforms when it comes to women’s participation in politics, but also in business and the right to drive. My hope is that Saudi Arabia will continue with the reforms.

Q: China’s involvement in the Middle East is expanding owing to its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. What kind of role do you think Japan can play in the region?

A: I think the whole region would also welcome even more engagement from Japan in the Middle East. But we know that there are also important investments from Japan in the United Arab Emirates, I think in Saudi Arabia, and some of these countries. But my dream would be that when we have the next Middle East summit, we will also have a session on Japan's role in the region.