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For too long, the politics of the Middle East have been a stumbling block to economic progress and opportunity.
These countries are all facing similar challenges – how to generate jobs to employ millions of young people, satisfy growing energy needs, develop critical infrastructure, and break down barriers to trade and investment. And yet the political fissures between countries have created an economically fractured region.
In fact, the MENA region – that’s the Middle East and North Africa – has the lowest rate of intra-regional trade in the world, with just 5% of exports from MENA countries going to their regional neighbors. And there is no broad regional framework like APEC in the Middle East to foster economic cooperation.
This week in Washington, D.C., high-level government representatives and business leaders, including 75 business and trade organizations, from across the Middle East and North Africa, Turkey, and the United States are participating in the Middle East Commercial Center’s (MECC) Leadership Forum. This forum will shape and advance the MECC’s efforts to promote stronger regional economic integration.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a long history of engagement in the region through our strong bilateral efforts and business councils on Turkey, Egypt, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Israel, and Iraq. Yet, we realized that beyond our work bilaterally in the region, there was a need for a regional architecture that would support commerce among business communities in the region.
That is why we established the Middle East Commercial Center, a coalition of the foremost business organizations and global companies that are working together to build a stronger economic future for the region. MECC participants have a clear mission—to foster collaboration on policy, programs, and projects to create a better environment for trade and investment in the Middle East and North Africa region.
While the MECC is a private-sector led initiative, the business community is informing, educating, and advocating with our respective governments in ways that can contribute and support intra-regional trade and foster private sector growth.
The U.S. government has been very supportive of the Middle East Commercial Center, with the Department of State playing a pivotal supporting role and Secretary John Kerry speaking at the forum on Monday evening. Other agencies such as the Department of Commerce, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Trade and Development Agency, and U.S. Trade Representative will participate as well. Multilateral organizations, including the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are also participating and cooperating with the MECC.
While the end goal may sound simplistic, the journey to create the MECC has not been easy. We started in Amman, Jordan, in May of 2013 with a handful of companies and organizations to test the proposition that we could work together. Since that time, we have proven that there is a desire for change and a willingness to cross national and cultural lines to build a private sector network committed to breaking down barriers to trade and investment.
The MECC tackles the big challenges while also addressing the ongoing daily issues that companies and individuals face when doing business in the region. Projects focus on strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem through the establishment of the Middle East and North Africa Venture Network that will help unlock the region’s innovation centers, developing new solutions and advocating for changes in moving goods through the region, fostering collaboration among the region’s industrial zones, creating new channels for cooperation on energy and water, and coming together to advance women in business in the region.
This cooperative effort has come a long way in 18 months since it began, but there is much more work to be done to realize the vision. The MECC can help the business community transcend politics in many ways. While the overarching political challenges could continue for many years to come, there is real, tangible progress that can be made to expand economic opportunity to all the people in the region. The MECC provides a new framework for the business community, in cooperation with governments, to drive that process forward.