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The Economics of the Middle East and North Africa

By Anthony Williams

EBRD-CEPR-Economics of Transition research symposium

When waves of political change swept through the Arab world just over five years ago, the focus of the international community was firmly on providing economic support to a new generation of people who were demanding improvements in their daily lives.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) became part of that international response, applying its experience in helping to promote vibrant private sector economies in the former eastern bloc to a new set of countries. The Bank began its engagement in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia in 2011. It had already been investing in Turkey since 2009.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the topic of a two-day research symposium being held by the EBRD, the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) and the Economics of Transition journal on 2-3 June. It will take a stand-back look at some of the more intractable challenges facing the region.

Many of the difficulties currently confronting the MENA region lie well outside the control of the countries themselves. To varying degrees, their economies are being negatively affected by the global slowdown, sluggish world trade and volatile financial flows, as well as the impact of terror attacks and the influx of refugees from war-torn neighbouring countries.

What this symposium will focus on, however, are the more home-grown challenges, the responses to which are in the gift of the authorities but which often require strong political will to implement, along with a determination to tackle vested interests and to take a long-term political perspective.

In a global environment where competition for finance is fierce, countries are under pressure to improve their business climates and to make their economies more attractive to investment, both from abroad and domestically.

That means getting to grips with social ills such as corruption, improving judicial systems, ensuring that skills are in line with the demands of the economy, and making societies fairer and more inclusive. Inequality is not only a social malaise but a major constraint on economic development. 

Progress is being made and it is important to continue the reforms that were embarked on at the start of the period of political transition.

The EBRD is playing a strongly supportive role in the elaboration of policies that promote investment and improve the business climate, for example in helping to develop regulations for the renewable energy sector or frameworks to strength the financial industry. Still more has to be done.   

‘The Economics of the Middle East and North Africa’ symposium will analyse these challenges in detail.   

Discussions will focus on areas such as job creation – crucial in a region where youth unemployment in particular is a major social and economic problem and where women are often systematically excluded from the marketplace.

In addition, papers will be delivered on migration, trade and political connections as well as the role of religion.

There will be two keynote lectures: The Power of the Street: Evidence from Egypt’s Arab Spring, from Tarek Hassan of the University of Chicago and CEPR; and The Cotton Boom and Slavery in NineteenthCentury Rural Egypt from Mohamed Saleh of the Toulouse School of Economics.

Recordings of the keynote speeches will available shortly after the event via YouTube. Follow the discussion live on Twitter #EBRDsemed.

Working papers:

Upward or downward: occupational mobility and return migration

Liberation technology: mobile phones and political mobilization in Africa

The Power of the Street: Evidence from Egypt's Arab Spring

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