DAVOS, SWITZERLAND: The president of the World Economic Forum welcomed the “strong” Saudi delegation to its annual meeting in Davos and hailed the reforms underway in the Kingdom. Borge Brende also revealed that the Geneva-based organization plans to hold the Middle East and North Africa regional summit, if it returns, in Riyadh.
“We really appreciate the strong delegation we have from Saudi Arabia in Davos. We have seven key ministers, including the foreign minister and the finance minister, with us in Davos,” he told Katie Jensen, host of Arab News’ “Frankly Speaking,” the video show that features interviews with leading policymakers and business leaders.
As a regular visitor to the Kingdom, Brende, Norway’s former foreign minister, described the major changes he has witnessed during his visits.
“Compared to when I first visited the Kingdom decades ago, the situation for women in Saudi Arabia is very different,” he told Arab News.
“You see them driving. When you come to hotels or restaurants, you see that women are a natural part of society. And we know that in universities too, more than 60% of students are women. It’s very important, and I think it shows the new leadership.
Among other significant changes underway in Saudi Arabia, Brende described “investments in the diversification of the economy, new technologies, education and skills” as important.
“I see a desire to be very serious about investing additional resources and revenues from the energy sector in diversifying the economy, and also in building a very strong sovereign wealth fund,” he said. he declared.
He sees parallels between what is happening in the Kingdom and the experience of his home country, Norway, which has used its sovereign wealth fund to invest in education and better conditions for industries.
“This will provide a very solid foundation for the years to come when oil and gas revenues peak. This money should be invested in diversification, education, skills, infrastructure and in the green transition that we will see happening in Saudi Arabia,” he said, adding that “the huge investment currently in renewable energy and solar is unprecedented”.
As for the role the Kingdom could play in the context of the ongoing economic changes in the region, Brende said: “Saudi Arabia needs to produce higher up the value chain in the coming years, where you also inject more technology in production.”
He added: “There are still areas where Saudi Arabia can improve… the tax system and the bureaucracy. I know that the Minister of Finance is very serious about this, and that collaboration is something that we would like to take even further.
Recalling his visit to the World Economic Center in Riyadh a year ago when the WEF opened its Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Saudi Arabia, he said, “I see so much progress in technologies.
He added, “We have initiatives related to accelerating gender equality, which should be one of the next steps. We also have a skills accelerator where we have a manual on how to retrain and upskill people who are currently not in the education system. We also have work on improving a country’s competitiveness.
Brende appeared on “Frankly Speaking” on the eve of the WEF’s first in-person annual meeting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first time the event has been held in Davos in May.
Shortly before the pandemic hit, the WEF announced in January 2020 that its MENA Regional Summit would be held in the Kingdom that year. When asked if such an event was still on the table, Brende said the WEF had been unable to resume any of its original meetings due to “pandemic-related unpredictability”.
Going forward, he said, “It is time for us to go to the Kingdom too. If we resume regional meetings as we have had them in the past, it will show. We can’t wait to come back to Riyadh.”
Watch the full episode of Frankly Speaking on the link here.