04 June 2012
Since the first structures of Byzantine were erected along the Bosphorus Strait centuries ago, the city that is today’s Istanbul has sat at a crossroads of humanity, serving as a bridge between east and west, north and south – and somehow managing to incorporate elements of them all. It is no wonder, then, that the World Economic Forum chose Istanbul to host its first multiregional meeting, “Building Bridges in Transformation,” to focus on the Middle East, North Africa, and Eurasia.
What these regions may share in common is not entirely apparent, at first glance. Different cultures, some even harboring deadly animosity toward each other, scatter the three continents and seem to change viewpoints on everything from economic policy to the culture of governance. However, the leaders at the World Economic Forum obviously believe these differences are merely superficial, and that each region faces common challenges. And there is a great deal of evidence to support them in this belief.
Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and North Africa have all faced distinct societal and economic crises in the past year. The MENA region has seen widespread instability and protests, as poor economic conditions triggered a massive outpouring of rage against authorities, who finally lost their last shred of legitimacy. It is widely believed that a severe drought in Russia caused global grain prices to rise enough to trigger the protests that resulted in the toppling of several governments. However, the economic outlook in the MENA regions remains bleak, and the countries affected by the protests struggle to rebuild in the face of a moribund global economy.
Europe’s crisis has been no less dramatic, as a collapse of the continent-wide economic structure has threatened to tear the young Euro experiment apart at the seams. The collapsing economy has also triggered protests here – from Greece to Germany – criticizing political leaders for their failure to bring a swift end to the economic despair, or at least to ease the pain.
Russia has deep ties to both the MENA region and the Eurozone, but it has not felt the icy chill of the economic crises – yet. Russia’s oil sector has kept the economy afloat, but fears are spreading that a protracted Eurozone crisis will hurt Russia, and an increasingly corrupt government will be unable to deal with the fallout. While the Kremlin faces increasing domestic pressure and falling legitimacy, the country faces international pressure to negotiate for improvements across the MENA region, from Syria to Iran, but so far, it seems western nations have had little incentive to offer the Russians.
No region can solve the challenges it faces on its own; however, through mutual cooperation and partnerships, it may be possible to hammer out highly beneficial, long-term solutions.
Stephen Kinnock, the World Economic Forum’s Europe and Central Asia Director (and husband of Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt), addressed these partnerships when he said in a statement: “The Eurozone crisis goes far beyond its own borders: it is the single biggest threat to the global economy today. Any resolution will require concerted action by Europe’s leaders that respects the interconnectedness of the entire region and helps the whole continent bring about meaningful change.”
Miroslav Dusek, Middle East and North Africa Director, said: “We have a unique window of opportunity in some Middle East and North Africa countries where new parliaments are being empowered in a way that will really strengthen their societies. Looking 20 years ahead, we want to make sure that in 2012 in Istanbul we helped decision-makers across all levels of society put together a foundation for the whole region to emerge as one of the most stable, secure and prosperous regions in the world.”
The Tunisian Interim Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali will be in attendance, along with heads of state and government from countries including Azerbaijan, Georgia, Jordan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Ukraine. The Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and the President of Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan will also participate. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as host of the Forum, will open the meeting. Afterward, PM Jebali will discuss the future of Tunisia, followed by a special address by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
In all, nearly 1000 leaders in business, civil society, and government will be gathering over the next two days to discuss some of the most pressing economic topics facing the region, including energy security, democratic development, open networks of communication, economic integration, and youth employment. It is expected that one specific topic on discussion will be new energy strategies and their intersection with geopolitics; one proposed idea has been an energy pipeline connecting the MENA region and Europe, running through Turkey and Russia to fuel the Eurozone. Turkish leaders also hope to attract Brazil into these economic talks, as the two rising economic powers have recently been growing closer alongside their increasing respective regional leadership.
For Turkey, above all, this is their chance to assert a leadership role that analysts have been predicting for years. Turkey’s unique geopolitical position, as well as the democratic and economic progress it has made in the past decade, will allow them to facilitate improved economic models, showcase a successful process of democratic transition, and become a global thought leader in best practices. Turkey was one of the few countries to continue economic growth during the global financial crisis, and it has emerged from the crises encircling it for several years into a respected, and powerful, new role.