Fill the stomachs first

by January 30, 2011

WIEF chairman Tun Musa Hitam (Photo: The Malaysian Insider)

Whatever happens in the next few days in Egypt, the role played by poverty and persistently high unemployment in prompting and sustaining the anti-government protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states seems to be a significant one. Alongside political reform (or perhaps, some rulers may hope, in its absence), the revitalization of economic growth and the sharing of gains more widely in society is likely to be high on the agenda of governments in the region.

In this context the development and increasing scale of the World Islamic Economic Forum (the seventh of which is to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan from June 7 to 9th this year) is worth noting. Somewhat similar in aim to its better known counterpart now meeting in Davos, the WIEF brings leaders from government, business, and academia together in order to discuss economic cooperation and business partnerships in the Muslim world.  Tun Musa Hitam, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia and chairman of the WIEF Foundation, talks to UAE-based newspaper The National about the Forum and its objectives:

While delegates at Davos are griping about the prices of gourmet pizzas – 28 Swiss francs (Dh108.78), according to one Twitter post – food security for the 1.2 billion people of the Muslim world will be top of the agenda at the WIEF.

“Our top priority … in very simplistic terms, is the stomach. Let’s fill the stomachs first,” Tun Musa says.

The problems facing the Muslim world are poorly served by the global elite, he says. At a time of persistent unemployment, he believes it is particularly important to focus on entrepreneurs, and women and young people in particular. Islamic finance and halal tourism are also key topics of discussion.

The forum has grown in step with the Islamic finance industry, now estimated by HSBC to be worth US$1.03 trillion (Dh3.78tn). The first WIEF forum in 2006 in Kuala Lumpur attracted 600 participants. Last year’s event was attended by 2,500 delegates from around the world.

Read the rest of the conversation here.