“There are three major challenges that countries need to address today as the world has evolved at an ever-increasing pace”, said Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning author. Friedman was speaking at the symposium organized on November 18, 2015 by the IMF’s Middle East Center for Economics and Finance (CEF) jointly with the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD), and moderated by the CEF Director Oussama Kanaan. The symposium which was under the theme “The World is Fast: How to Understand It and Thrive in It” attracted a large audience from the public and the private sector, academia, and embassies.
“The new divide in the world is no longer north, south, east, and west but between order and disorder”, Friedman said. He focused his talk on how countries, in particular in the Arab World, could deal with a world that is moving fast on account of mutually reinforcing challenges in the realm of globalization, the digital revolution, and climate change.
Friedman said that globalization is making economies more closely connected to each other, making workers, investors and markets robustly interdependent and jointly exposed to global trends. The Arab World could benefit from globalization by removing obstacles that hamper free flow of trade and exchange of ideas. “Removing barriers to cross-border trade and free flow of ideas would allow private sector development and help Arab countries grow globally and diversify their production base”, Friedman said. “This is even particularly crucial for oil-producing countries that rely on a single source of revenues”. Friedman noted that, while East Asian countries and other emerging economies have raised their production at a high and sustained growth rate and boosted their competitiveness in the global market, most Arab countries showed slow or no progress.
The second challenge according to Friedman lies in the Digital Revolution. “Recent examples show how the increasing power of software computers and robots requires workers to rapidly adjust their skills or be at risk of losing their jobs”, Friedman said. “Average is over for every country”. He added that the Arab region needs to ensure proper investment in the quality of education and vocational training; such investment has the potential of catching up with the digital revolution and could offer substantial benefits to the countries. Countries with a well-educated and well-trained population can reap the benefits of the digital revolution and find their niches in international production networks through exports and outsourcing.
The third challenge highlighted by Friedman relates to global warming. “So far, the negative impact of global warming has barely been addressed in Arab countries”, he noted. He then pointed out that, if current trends of carbon dioxide emissions are not reduced, the consequences for the world can be dire, and even more so for the Arab Gulf region. Governments in the region need to allocate adequate resources to reduce the risks of warming and prevent its adverse effects on economic development.