Entire Arab World Must Strive to Empower its Youth, Secretary-General Tells Global Economic Forum on Middle East, North Africa

SG/SM/19536-ECO/303
6 April 2019

Entire Arab World Must Strive to Empower its Youth, Secretary-General Tells Global Economic Forum on Middle East, North Africa

Following are UN Secretary‑General António Guterres’ remarks to the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, in Dead Sea, Jordan today:

I thank their Majesties King Abdullah II and Queen Rania al Abdullah, as well as the people and Government of Jordan, for hosting this timely meeting.

Your Majesty, it has been a pleasure to work with you across the decades, from my time as Prime Minister of Portugal through my years as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and now in my present capacity.

You have always been a champion of peace, and you have been a voice for inter-religious coexistence and mutual respect — as recognized by the awarding of the Templeton Prize for 2018.  And I was honoured to join you on that occasion.

And you have been an ally of people in need in and beyond the region.  Indeed, as we all know, Jordan has demonstrated exceptional generosity to people fleeing conflict and upheaval in Palestine, in Syria and elsewhere, with an enormous impact on Jordan’s economy and society.

Two years ago, I visited the Zaatari camp for the fifth time and once again saw Jordan’s generosity in action.

This meeting of the World Economic Forum builds on other gatherings earlier this year, in London and Brussels, which marked the start of a new partnership approach between Jordan and the international community in pursuit of sustainable growth and self-reliance.  In light of the pressures on the country, Jordan deserves strong solidarity from the international community.

But, let me also stress the bigger picture and brighter narrative:  beyond the impacts linked to the Syrian crisis, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Jordan is also a country with large investment opportunities for private sector-led growth.  And here let me give you my personal examples.  When I was High Commissioner for Refugees and in the context of the reform of the Organization, we decided to create global information and communications technology (ICT) centre to support our ICT activities worldwide.

We selected the country to do it based on costs, on the quality of men power and namely digital literacy and also evidently on the infrastructure of the country.  Jordan came first.  The centre was built.  The results outstanding.  So, to all those who are pondering an investment in Jordan.  My message is very clear:  do what I did, and you will not repent.

Jordan remains a fundamental pillar of regional stability, and United Nations agencies are actively supporting the country’s determined efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  And Jordan is a leading contributor to United Nations peacekeeping, with hundreds of troops and police in several of our operations — another vital generous contribution.

Jordan was also the driving force behind a landmark resolution of the Security Council on youth that highlighted the importance of including the voices of young people in our work for peace.  With its own large and dynamic youth population, and with the right support, Jordan is poised to reap a demographic dividend.

For these reasons and more, I trust that we will see, at this forum, strong and wide-ranging expressions of international commitment to Jordan at this crucial time.

This is indeed a critical moment for the region.  The United Nations is deeply engaged in a surge of diplomacy for peace — not always successful, I must confess — to untie the Gordian knot of conflict and instability.  Resolving the region’s conflicts is an imperative — including the two-State solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace with secure and recognized borders, and with Jerusalem as capital of the two countries.

And in some cases, I believe there is progress to report.  I just came from Tunisia, which successfully held its first free municipal elections last year and where the democratic transition continues to advance.  And in Egypt, I spoke with the Grand Imam of Al-Alzhar Mosque about what more we can do to advance tolerance and mutual respect and combat hatred of all kinds.

My Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide is defining a global plan of action against hate speech, and the High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations is working on a plan for safeguarding religious sites.  And these are two concerns in which Jordan has had a pioneering work in the world that we all respect and admire.

I am convinced that it is crucial to look at the Middle East and North Africa not only as an area of conflict, but as a region of opportunities.  With smart approaches internally and support from the international community, we can unleash remarkable dynamism and capacity.

In recent years, several countries have managed to integrate into their Constitutions some of the political demands first articulated in the streets, and to strengthen social protection, good governance and human rights.

There have been determined efforts to address violent extremism, that take us beyond security approaches to the challenge.

And I want to underline some notable steps against gender-based discrimination, including new legislation on domestic violence, new penalties for sexual harassment, the removal of constraints on the participation of women in labour markets and an increase in women’s representation in parliament and decision-making.  Indeed, the empowerment of women is essential.  One recent study indicated that achieving full and real gender parity would increase the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) by $2.7 trillion by 2025.

And just as Jordan is striving to empower its youth, so must the entire Arab world, where two thirds of the people are under the age of 30 — the highest share ever — do the same.  This demographic momentum will last for at least the next two decades — and requires a massive investment in education, skills and participation to reap its full potential for development and peace.

The most systemic risk facing us all today is climate change.  Climate change is moving faster than our efforts to address it.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) just reported that we are seeing record highs in land and ocean temperatures, sea levels and greenhouse‑gas concentrations.  And we are seeing, from fires in California to floods in Mozambique, the dramatic impact of extreme weather events.

This region will face some of the worst impacts — in particular increased water stress and desertification, which will reduce the amount of arable land and increase dependence on food imports.  For Jordan, already one of the world’s driest countries, climate change is likely to exacerbate such pressures and raise new challenges to sustainable development.

So, it is high time for more urgency and more ambition not only in meeting this stress, but in reaping the benefits of climate action.  That is why I am convening a climate action summit in New York on 23 September.  I am telling leaders:  “Don’t come with a speech; come with a plan” to put us, once and for all, on a sustainable path.

I want the summit to spur more ambitious commitments on mitigation, adaptation and finance.  And countries like Jordan that do not contribute much to climate change cannot be the victims of the fact that others are neglecting their own obligations.

And I want it to show how everyone can benefit from climate action, from jobs to health.  The opportunities in the region are enormous.  Just see the potential of renewable energy.

Climate action is indeed essential if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  The cost of inaction is far greater than what it will require to set us on the path we know will pay huge dividends.  And the involvement of the private sector, so well represented in this room, is essential for climate action.  So, I count on your support in making the Summit a success.  We are in a race against time — but it is a race we can win.

Climate change is just one of the challenges on which we need all to act — Governments, private sector, innovators, investors and civil society — working in full cooperation as it was highlighted by the President of the World Economic Forum, my dear friend Claus Schwab.

Today we live with a paradox:  global challenges are more connected, but our responses remain fragmented.  Globalization and technological progress have led to remarkable advances, but they also have generated increased inequality and the risk of disruption in job markets.  These trends will be intensified within the context of the fourth Industrial Revolution and require our adequate collective response.

Many people, sectors and regions feel they are being left behind.  This has been a factor in reducing trust in political establishments — and in rising populism.

The United Nations is pursuing action across many fronts to support Member States in meeting these challenges.  We continue to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals towards a fair globalization that works for all.

I am a multilateralist — and I am deeply convinced that there is no other way to deal with global challenges than with a smart, evidence-based global response, organized in a multilateral way to benefit all.

For information media. Not an official record.