Kito de Boer, the McKinsey & Company director and Dutch national who has been living in Dubai since 1999, recently accepted what may be one of the most challenging jobs in the Middle East: Promoting investment in the Palestinian territories to support Palestinian economic development and institution building.
He joined the YPO Emirates Chapter in 2001 and is now a member the WPO Emirates and WPO Greater MENA Chapters.
Over the past 15 years, de Boer has worked with governments including rich Arab Gulf states, emerging African economies and fast growth South Asian markets on addressing development issues, pioneering programs to improve education, economic growth and health care. During a dinner for Israeli and Palestinian business leaders at the U.S. State Department in April 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced de Boer’s appointment to oversee the Initiative of Palestinian Economy, a private-sector investment initiative, for the Middle East Quartet. Created in 2002 and represented by Tony Blair, the Quartet consists of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia and is mandated to help mediate Middle East peace negotiations.
In this exclusive interview, de Boer, who is a keynote speaker at a YPO Oman Chapter event in April, discusses his new role with passion and optimism, stressing the importance of engaging with all political parties in economic activities — from the ground up — and why, contrary to the views of many skeptics, now is the right time for the business community to act.
When did you first get involved in Palestinian economic issues?
I never had been to the Palestinian territories until about 18 months ago. At the time, McKinsey was asked to help Sir Ronald Cohen, chairman of Portland Trust, a British nonprofit action tank whose mission is to promote peace and stability between Israelis and Palestinians through economic development. Several members of the Trust’s advisory board are YPO and WPO members who we worked with in close cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and stakeholders to develop a strategy for business under the status quo, producing a set of recommendations that made sense, including identifying eight priority sectors and 50 projects.
Quartet Representative Tony Blair knew of the work, and when Secretary Kerry asked Blair for an economic strategy for rebuilding the Palestinian economy, I was approached. So my appointment as head of the Initiative of Palestinian Economy is very recent; there was a risk until the last minute that it might not go ahead because of the political turmoil in Palestine.
What are your key responsibilities in this new role?
The principal mission of the initiative is to generate jobs. We are putting the spotlight on the economy and my role is heavily focused on attracting investment in the Palestinian territories. Over the next 10 years, we need to create 1 million jobs to attain an unemployment rate of less than 10 percent annually.
When I was first offered the job and before accepting, I went to Ramallah and came away realizing that it’s not a war zone but an occupation with good businesses. Anyone who can create a successful business under the occupation has to be really good. I found some of the most resilient companies with leaders who are genuinely inspirational and saw opportunities, so I said yes. My forum group offered great support and introductions, especially Rami Malhas (a YPO member since 1999) who went with me to Ramallah.
Why should investors consider Palestine?
First, for the economic opportunities. Second, to help others, supporting Palestinians become stronger and less dependent and ensuring their finest talent remains in Palestine to build a brighter future. Investment is essential to reverse a brain drain into a brain gain. Third, investors will have access to a pool of talent who are local and hardworking.
I would like to hear from anyone interested in investing in Palestine. At the recent State Department dinner in Washington, there were Palestinian business leaders and Israeli executives. Members of Breaking the Impasse, an Israeli peace organization initiative that promotes economic ties in the Middle East, were invited. There is a need to work closely with both sides. My role is to find ways to create enabling environment within the current political situation.
How does this initiative tie in with the stalling peace process?
The peace process of two-state solution will never go away. It’s the only viable solution. The alternative is a one-state solution and nobody has been able to explain how this is possible. Secretary of State Kerry is saying there is now a halt, not a stop, and the expectation is the peace process will continue and remain a priority. The economic program may have less immediate success, but for the long term it’s vital. The need to create 1 million jobs will not go away.
Palestinians want the pain to stop in Palestine. We are addressing the daily struggles of life, giving the Palestinians in Palestine the same hopes and opportunities that Palestinians outside of Palestine have. This will be difficult, but someone has to start. If I get the political tailwind, the program will be fast. If not, it will be slower.
Why now when the political situation appears to be deteriorating?
In the last 15 years, this is the most committed and engaged the U.S. government has been toward the peace process. If not now, when? And if not us, then who? Time is not on our side. The Initiative of Palestinian Economy will have 25 to 30 business professional experts in key sectors and deal with the current economic realities, focusing on Palestine for Palestine by Palestinians. We can’t wait for the 1 million jobs.