America First, Davos Woman and Rocket Man: WEF 2018 burning issues
Some cynics dismiss the Davos bash as an irrelevant talking shop — all hot air in a cold climate — that’s little more than an excuse for some fun in the snow and some time on the piste.
But I always find it an intellectually stimulating occasion, an opportunity to take an early-year sounding of the state of the world. All that sub-zero Alpine air blows away the festive cobwebs and gets you thinking straight again.
And, of course, for a journalist it’s the best networking event in the world. WEF 2018 promises to be the best for many years. Here — in rough order of priority — are the questions I’m hoping to get answered at the event:
1. How will President Trump go down among the global elite that he affects to despise? Having the “America First” populist in the midst of the “swamp” he wants to drain should be fascinating. WEF plenary sessions — the big set pieces that world leaders use to tell their message — are usually indulgent places, but the mood among the audience is transmitted almost by osmosis. Theresa May, the British prime minister, drew some “tut-tuts” from the crowd with her pro-Brexit declarations last year. Will the US president win them over to his anti-globalist ways? Or will they react more noisily to his message? I’m betting he will make some friends, but also confirm his enemies’ worst fears.
2. What will be the global judgment on Saudi Arabia’s dramatic year of change? The Davos constituency of business leaders and financiers have a keen interest in the economic transformation underway in the Kingdom, while the proponents of greater liberalization will applaud moves toward gender equality and cultural change. But there is also likely to be a significant portion critical of Saudi Arabia’s assertive moves in regional foreign policy. Which will prevail in the overall assessment of the Kingdom by its global peers?
3. Will “sustainability” remain the WEF buzzword? The idea of promoting a sustainable planet amid all the private jets, helicopters and Cadillacs might seem bizarre, but environmentally aware policies and initiatives have been the central themes of recent WEF events. Serious business leaders are increasingly factoring in these issues in their strategic plans, and environmental concerns are top of the WEF’s global risks. Will anything concrete emerge in this respect from WEF 2018?
4. Will women make further progress at Davos? Gender equality is another of the WEF’s long-held policy stances. It makes economic sense, as much as being transparently more just in a social and cultural sense, as the Arab world is increasingly convinced. For the first time at WEF 2018, all of the meeting’s seven co-chairs are women. But the event remains a predominantly male affair, in terms of the gender of attendees. “Spouses and partners” are welcomed, but Davos Man still rules, though he is a little less assertive about it in the MeToo age. Will there be a significant change at this Davos? I suspect not much.
What does Elton John think of the other rocket man and will Trump feel the Davos chill or a warm WEF welcome? All these questions and more are set to be answered in the days ahead.
5. What is the mood among the “masters of the universe,” the financial and economic titans who run the world and traditionally dominate Davos? They are in a good place at the moment, with global economic growth forecast strong in 2018, world stock markets at record highs and several big “liquidity events” expected this year, not least the record-breaking initial public offering of Saudi Aramco. On the other hand, valuations are at all-time highs, and some are expecting the “Trump boom” to give way to bust later this year. Has the world learned from the global financial crisis? Davos is the place to find out.
6. What does Elton John make of it all? The aging rocker is one of the celebrity attendees at this year’s WEF, along with Hollywood actress Cate Blanchett, rapper-with-a-brain will.i.am, and Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan. If I get close enough, I want to ask Cate about the making of the moving refugee poem “What They Took With Them,” will.i.am about urban infrastructure investment patterns in the US rust-belt, and Shah about the initiatives of his Prime Minister Modi (also present at Davos) to cut through bureaucratic red tape in Indian business. I will ask Elton, who is giving a talk on leadership, what he thinks of the other “rocket man,” Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea.
• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. He can be reached on Twitter
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