It was of course enhanced by the late decision of US President Donald Trump to attend, which added a kind of macabre fascination to the event. Yet even had he not been there, Davos ‘18 had more than enough to keep you interested and hard at it all week. Here are some of the lessons I took away from the event.
1. Donald Trump reads a good autocue. The President’s special address was temperate, well-judged and in keeping with the line everyone knew he would espouse. “America first is not America alone” was a speech-writer’s gem, and guaranteed to be the headline round the world. But as soon as he went off-script, in a Q&A session with Klaus Schwab, it was back to the mercurial Trump we have come to now expect over the past year. Exaggerated claims about his economic record and business skills, references to “my generals”, and of course the “nasty, mean, vicious, fake media.” The real Trump was back.
2. Schwab was perhaps a little too grateful to the President for his decision to attend. It was not just the “so how great are you really, Mr.President” tone of the Q&A, but the gushing introduction before Trump’s special address — especially the suggestion from Schwab that the President had been the victim of “misconception and biased interpretation,” which drew the first boos from the audience. The WEF has a symbiotic relationship with the media and opinion formers who give it such prominence every year, and that relationship depends on mutual respect. “Bias” is a very serious charge.
3. The Forum was more optimistic on the outlook for the global economy than at any time I can remember. The International Monetary Fund update, the PwC survey of global chief executives, and the WEF’s own panel on the world economy all held out the prospect of synchronized GDP growth in the major economies, with even the session on the prospect of 2018 as a year of financial crisis not really striking any fear. But, as one observer remarked, the last time the prospects were so good was in 2007. What could possibly go wrong?
4. Saudi Arabia had a good WEF. Some had been looking forward to evidence of the further evolution of the Public Investment Fund (PIF) as a modern, globally-oriented investor, but the PIF obviously felt it had done enough with the “Davos in the desert” in Riyadh last year, and did not attend. There were more than enough big hitters from the Kingdom to compensate, with a high-ranking ministerial team present. Khalid Al-Falih, again, was the most eloquent advocate of the vital energy industry. But the star of the show was Princess Reema Bint Bandar, who wowed an audience of economists and financiers with an impassioned and eloquent plea for gender equality in the Kingdom. It was a show stealer.
5. The other new Saudi star was a WEF veteran in a new role. Klaus Kleinfeld, appointed CEO of the Kingdom’s $500 billion mega-City Neom last year, returned to the place where he has been a stalwart for a long time, and, some suggested, the epitome of “Davos man.”.He is excited to share his innovative plans for the new Red Sea conurbation, when they are ready.
Davos seems to have reached a natural ceiling - anything more than 2,500-3,000 peoplewould be simply impossible, requring a move to Zurich perhaps. But it would not be the same in the Swiss financial capiytal.
6. It was not just in policy matters that Saudi Arabia made a good impression. The “Saudi Voyage” lunch, organized by MISK Global Forum, in the main Congress lobby was an absolute sell-out. Whether the timing — just before the Trump speech — was deliberate or coincidental is unknown, but it was a great success. One joker suggested that the guests had come for lunch and decided to stay for the President’s speech, explaining the big turnout for Trump.
7. Davos is almost too big for Davos. The logistics of getting up and down the 1,500m of Swiss Alp seem more daunting each year. Trump’s 400 or so entourage strained the town’s capacity almost to breaking point, for the second time in the week. A huge blizzard on the meeting’s eve also threatened to delay the start. But — as ever — it all came right on the night. Davos seems to have reached a natural ceiling — anything more than 2,500-3,000 people would be simply impossible, and require a move to Zurich, perhaps. But it would not be the same in the Swiss financial capital, and in any case would be prey to the anarchist demonstrators I saw there on Saturday evening. It looks like the “masters of the universe” will be making the trip up and down the “Magic Mountain” for many years to come.
• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. He can be reached on Twitter @frankkanedubai