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Richard Attias

Richard Attias

Posted: January 25, 2011 11:53 PM

Is it only January? Though we've just begun 2011, the world has already witnessed some pretty dramatic events, from the popular uprising in Tunisia on January 14 that sent ripples into several neighboring countries, to the continued WikiLeaks fall-out, a polarizing state visit of China to the United States, claims of an intensifying emerging vs. emerged market "currency war", and yesterday's deadly terror attack at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport.

Many are wondering what the future holds for this world where economies are shifting, power dynamics are in flux, and the youth in many nations are so dramatically demonstrating their desire for a new reality based on stability, innovation and economic growth. The scale of today's protests in Egypt, and the speed at which they erupted, shows us that these changes are happening faster and faster - sometimes overnight - and that this is no time for our global leadership to passively observe how our world is shifting.

I'm in Riyadh this week at the fifth annual Global Competitiveness Forum and have been struck by the contrasting social and economic realities you find across the Arab world and the broader circle of emerging markets. While the recent unrest in Tunisia has drawn attention to some of the great challenges this region is facing, it has distracted us from another important truth: that a large part of this region is strongly and steadfastly committed to growth, and recognizes innovation, change and collaboration as the key to boosting their standing in the world economy.

As Edmund Phelps, my friend and colleague at Columbia University's Center for Capitalism and Society wrote in the Financial Times yesterday, one of the fundamental causes of the unrest in Tunisia is a long history of stifled entrepreneurism and innovation. Over the past three days, it's been heartening to see that that trend is not consistent across this region.

GCF is a gathering of the top minds from across the Middle East and the world, focused on finding new approaches to global sustainable competitiveness. Over the past three days, I have had the chance to hear dozens of business leaders, policy makers, and academics come here to share ideas and draw new insights about what it takes to up the global competitiveness of emerging markets.

The face of today's global competitiveness is changing by the minute. Saudi Arabia, the host country of GCF 2011, has itself has made a remarkable transformation over the past 5 years: in 2005, it ranked 67th in the world in terms of foreign direct investment; in 2010, its ranking increased to 11th in the world, with roughly US$ 150 billion in FDI.

This echoes what I saw last month in Brazil, which is currently one of the most dynamic and fastest growing economies in the world. There I saw an enormous level of investment and innovation in public infrastructure and mining, paving the way for sustained macroeconomic growth.

These are remarkable signs that today's centers of growth and influence look very different than they did fifty, ten or even five years ago. Jim O'Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist that coined the term "BRIC" in 2001 as a grouping of the four fastest-growing economies - Brazil, Russia, India, and China - was spot-on at the time in singling out these four as the powerhouses among emerging economies. But now we've entered a new decade, and we're starting to see more players join this club.

Last month, the original BRIC nations officially admitted South Africa into their grouping. I'm convinced that the stronger forces in the global economy for the coming years fall along an axis that runs from Brazil to China, crossing through Africa, the Middle East, and Gulf countries.

From one corner of the world to another, and even between neighboring countries, there are great disparities in the degree to which national economies are embracing and encouraging economic growth. So many countries are "getting it right," and have important insights to share - insights that may help to avoid difficult consequences such as the ones we're seeing in Tunisia. For me, this underscores the importance of events like the Global Competitiveness Forum, and all the other platforms we create to bring leaders together to share their perspectives and foster open dialogue. Given the rapid pace at which these changes are happening, there's no time to just think. The world won't wait for anyone; the time to come together and act is now.

Now more than ever, the winners are the doers.