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Sun 23 Dec 2007 04:00 AM

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The Middle East’s great rise: now is the time

It has been a great year for business in the Middle East.

It has been a great year for business in the Middle East. A few weeks ago, Arabian Business revealed the 2007 list of the 50 richest Arabs. With a combined net worth of US$239.74bn, it is clear that individuals are doing quite well in the Gulf region. Companies are also expanding both locally and internationally, and some are approaching the market caps of the biggest corporations in the world. We have also seen the rising profile of sovereign wealth funds, which culminated with Abu Dhabi's US$7.5bn injection into Citigroup. Capital has also been going the other way - in early December, French cement giant Lafarge acquired Orascom's cement business for US$15bn, the biggest FDI into the region to date.

But not everyone has a rosy outlook for the year to come. When the GCC heads of state met earlier this month, the summit's host Emir of Qatar HH Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani warned of difficulties and challenges that will emerge, encompassing political, economic and even cultural threats. He said the climate is wrought with "grave dangers threatening our homelands, the region and the world... They are dangers that not only affect security but also the means of progress, the levels of production, standards of living and welfare and all aspects of life in today's world."

Now is the time for the Arab youth (and governments) to focus on developing more service sector jobs.

The good news is that any of the envisioned dangers can be quelled and overcome, and for a generation of young Arabs, I will borrow from civil rights activist Martin Luther King and say: "Now is the time." This simple call to action mobilised a nation to overcome a scourge far more odious than the one that affects the Arab world, and it did it in a constructive and non-violent way.

Now is the time for the Arab youth (and governments) to focus on developing more service sector jobs and laying more building blocks for a knowledge-based economy. It is often said that the Middle East needs to create 110 million jobs by 2015 - these jobs will not be created through real estate development and speculation. The Emir of Qatar raised this issue specifically and said: "the field of scientific research in particular remains in need of further attention and care. Real progress requires that we become a source of knowledge in its various aspects and being capable of developing it and not mere consumers of it."

Now is the time for trade barriers to be lifted, especially within the Arab world. Almost all political scientists and historians agree that although free trade may not eliminate poverty or decrease existing inequalities, it does help the aggregate economy. Fair competition will force business to become leaner and better. The region's markets offer a fantastic training ground that must be exploited for the benefit of all.

Now is the time for corporate social responsibility that actually makes a difference to people and the environment, and is not just an extension of marketing departments. A few weeks ago I asked a senior executive what his company is doing to improve the world around us. He said his company just produced the biggest ad in the world - which placed them in the Guinness World Records. This is not what most people would consider responsible action. Last week, my colleague Tamara Walid wrote about a new initiative spearheaded by oil industry executives. The Industry's Humanitarian Support Alliance NGO (IHSAN) is tapping into the vast resources and expertise in the oil sector to drill for water in areas where safe water is not readily available. More than two million people die each year due to water-borne disease. While some may think that the costs of such actions are prohibitive, new wells that service an entire community costs just US$400.

Finally, now is the time for me to lighten up. Happy holidays to all - enjoy some rest, because 2008 will be a transformational year for the Middle East.