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Arabs at Davos: Improving the state of the world?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has been, for more than four decades, “committed to improving the state of the world.” That is a bold statement but, having attended the Davos Annual Meeting for almost two of the last four decades, I can comfortably confirm that it is a very serious commitment — certainly one that goes beyond pretty words and truly spells out a specific goal.
Traditionally held in January, the Annual Meeting, a brainchild of World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman professor Klaus Schwab, has grown to become “the foremost creative force for engaging the world’s top leaders in collaborative activities to shape the global, regional and industry agendas at the beginning of each year.”
The meetings really have become a key convergence point for world leaders. Everyone is present, including the Arabs — the good and not so good among them.
It is an exceptional achievement, and Schwab deserves much credit for his mission to improve the state of the world. This is no small achievement by any measure.
Schwab once described the forum as “an organization that has to prepare the world for the future.” Indeed, the world’s greatest minds, most powerful leaders and change drivers, actively participate in the flagship Annual Meeting in Davos by sharing insights and experiences, discussing challenges and opportunities, and creating solutions for the benefit of the world.
Everyone present at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting is either adding value or learning from those adding value. Quite often, participants are doing both: adding value in some areas, while learning in other areas. It is an eloquent demonstration of global collaboration. Truly beautiful and extremely powerful, this is how the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting aims to improve the state of the world. It is simple and it works. This is not my opinion, this is fact, as demonstrated by the Annual Meeting’s growing importance on the world stage.
Unfortunately, some Arabs seem to have managed to make an exception for themselves and seem to be neither adding value nor learning from those adding value. As a result of these types of people, while the state of the world seems to be improving, ours seems to remain stagnant, in some cases even regressing.
The Arab delegation to Davos
An Arab thought leader (one of the few still with us), once wrote that if we were to erase the Arab population from the world, nothing much would change because we are, basically, irrelevant. In fact, life would continue exactly as it does today. We are not producers, we are consumers — and poor ones at that. We make no material cultural, social, economic, industrial or intellectual contributions to the world. If we disappeared overnight, the world might not even notice.
Additionally, with the current strong waves of Arabophobia and Islamophobia, many might argue that the world would be a better place without our kind. While such words are controversial, to say the least, they do not fall far from the truth. Davos is an example of a place where we could, to a large extent, be considered irrelevant.
The Annual Meeting is a brilliant event attracting some of the world’s greatest minds. Yet, I often noticed that the Arab delegates, the vast majority at least, are focused only on rubbing shoulders with the big names, and consuming — rather than sharing — knowledge. Just like in other situations, Arabs are largely only consumers.
There are, of course, some Arab debaters that make us proud — Prince Turki bin Faisal, chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, for example, are two among several Arab names who certainly command the world’s attention when they speak.
However, I can barely remember the last time an Arab voice really shook Davos — the last significant moment I recall was the Palestinian-Israeli meeting in 1994.
At the beginning of the millennium, more Arabs were attending the meeting than Indians or Chinese. Today, the numbers from the latter countries have doubled and even tripled, with attendees having been consistently welcomed to return as they contribute back to the community by sharing insights and knowledge.
The WEF meetings consist of a series of official sessions, bilateral and one-to-one meetings attended by an extraordinarily wide range of leaders. However, most Arab delegations over the past two decades — at least as far as I could tell — consisted predominantly of senior government officials and representatives of ruling regimes. Business leaders and private-sector executives from the Arab world attending the meetings have almost always been close to the ruling governments. Even non-governmental organization representatives are government-friendly or government-sponsored.
This creates almost a complete consistency, even uniformity, among Arab attendees, robbing them of the diversity and depth necessary to make learning, or even the exchange of experiences, possible. No innovators, no independent thinkers, no true opposition figures, no critics; most of the Arab delegations to the WEF meetings have been of different shades of bland, pro-government grey. Year after year.
Arab voices beyond that sphere are rare at Davos today. Light was shed during some of the so-called Arab Spring, but that did not last long. This bias is a representation of how things happen in our part of the world.
Against the grand, lofty backdrop of trying to improve the state of the world, some Arab participants at the Annual Meeting have instead taken petty, frivolous positions saying such remarkable things like “democracy is not in our DNA as Arabs” or “a stable power supply is more important to Arabs than their human rights”. Seriously, how can anyone treat us with any respect when we say things like that on the world stage? How can we expect to contribute to improving the state of the world when, clearly, we can’t even contribute to improving our own state of affairs?
That is not, of course, to tar all Arab participants at Davos with the same brush. But the fact is, at least in my experience, that the majority are, at best, disappointing — which, in turn, reflects poorly on us.
Today, one is eager to listen to an Arab leader who is neither reading out prepared notes nor reciting a carefully rehearsed speech.
Arab delegations attending the forum today are probably stronger players in private meetings — this is especially true for big energy firms and the like. However, many don’t seem to have a giving spirit of openly sharing knowledge, and certainly act upon their personal interests. This can sometimes also mean fighting good initiatives simply because they are not taking a prestigious role in them, such as the Arab Business Council, an initiative of the World Economic Forum. This was an initiative that could have positively and massively contributed to the advancement of economic reform in the Arab world but, unfortunately, was killed due to internal bickering among Arab business elite over power.
We should remain hopeful
Despite all this, we should be positive as hope is looming again. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is a national overhaul plan that will remain in the limelight for years to come, as the world watches how its events and plans unfold. It will hopefully be the bridge to a brighter future not only for Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries, but for the Arab World as a whole. With the dependence on oil going away, we hope to become a multi-faceted society. This is the biggest economy in the region, so if it does well, it will positively impact the rest of the Arab world, mandating the world to listen to us. We hope that Vision 2030 will be the step that will help us improve our own state and consequently contribute to improving the state of the world.
The Brexit and Trump votes and the very obvious, and perhaps equally alarming, rise in populist thinking across the world means it is time we, as Arabs, get our act together. Fast.
Fortunately, this year’s Annual Meeting will focus on “Responsive and Responsible Leadership” and “aims to rededicate leaders from all walks of life to achieve common goals and drive new initiatives.” This could not be more relevant — or more important — to us right now, and I hope we will finally be able to use the forum to improve the state of the world. It is about time.
• Khalid Abdulla-Janahi is the group chief executive of Dar Al Mal Al Islami Trust (DMI Trust), with over 30 years of experience in banking and financial services.