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Why hosting global conferences matters to the GCC

Gulf countries have become sought-after platforms for international conferences. The UAE is leading with healthy competition between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There are the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils annual meeting, the World Government Summit and the Annual Investment Meeting in Dubai, plus the Milken Institute’s MENA Summit and the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi. All are sponsored and supported at the highest level by the president, prime minister or crown princes.

Saudi Arabia is also emerging thanks to conferences such as the Future Investment Initiative and the IEA-IEF-OPEC Symposium on Energy Outlooks, which is taking place in Riyadh this week. These events are also sponsored or supported by the highest levels of government.

This is only a small, random selection of conferences put on every year throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. We could ask why they matter, especially as the themes are very diverse. 

The rest of the world has quite preconceived notions about the greater Middle East and North Africa region as an area rife with conflict and strife and lacking in tolerance. These conferences bring decision-makers to the region to see for themselves, which has a multiplier effect.

The UAE in particular but also Saudi Arabia are addressing many of the issues near and dear to the hearts of liberals in Europe and North America, such as working to address gender imbalances and tolerance. The visit of Pope Francis to the UAE and the Kingdom’s appointment of its first female ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, are high-profile manifestations of this new era of aspiration and tolerance. The UAE has a minister of tolerance and even one of happiness, which suggests that the welfare of the population really does matter to its leaders.

Another indication of just how much things have developed is, on arrival in Riyadh or Jeddah, seeing with one’s own eyes how much Saudi Arabia has opened up. Everyday life has become so much more open compared to only five years ago. That extends well beyond women’s ability to drive or a burgeoning music and entertainment sector. It transcends into everyday life and the efforts of many institutions, such as, for instance, the gender parity of the Arab News office in Riyadh.

Tourism is obviously one way to shed light on these developments. The UAE, Dubai and Abu Dhabi especially, have been trailblazers with the best airlines and stunning hotels. These destinations redefine the luxury holiday experience. Saudi Arabia is also making its own efforts, with the promotion of entertainment and tourism part and parcel of Saudi Vision 2030. This makes sense from three angles: One, it keeps revenue in the country rather than seeing the young go to Dubai or Europe for a holiday; two, it allows foreigners to admire the beauty of the landscape and rich cultural heritage; and, last but not at all at least, tourism is a labor-intensive industry that will create jobs, which are badly needed as 70 percent of the population is below the age of 30. Many critics label the Kingdom’s tourism aspirations as too ambitious. In its defense, even if only some of the planned projects are realized, it will be a major step forward. We should also not forget that there is considerable expertise in the country, as Hajj is one of the biggest annual tourism events in the world. 

Tourism is one way of bringing the region closer to the hearts and minds of the world’s population, but what is at least as important is convincing global decision-makers and influencers. This brings us back to the aforementioned conferences, which convene many of the world’s best and the brightest. The Milken Institute’s MENA Summit is an outstanding example of how regional issues can be discussed alongside global political, economic and social phenomena. It was most powerful when Michael Milken explained that, when he organized the first MENA Summit a year ago, 30 percent of the attendees had never been to the region before. A year on, the number of participants had doubled, but only 20 to 25 percent were visiting MENA for the first time. One might add that the level of participants and the quality of discussions were truly world-class and could compete with the world’s leading conferences. 

It is precisely this sort of multiplier effect that corrects misperceptions and puts the greater MENA region on the map. In other words, GCC governments should be encouraged to stay the course when it comes to bringing the best and the brightest here to discuss global and regional issues.