DAVOS: The Belvedere hotel was buzzing with rumor on the eve of the formal opening day of Davos 2019, and most of it centered on British Prime Minister Theresa May. Will she? Won’t she?
The UK leader has apparently withdrawn from this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting. She is one of a number of big-hitters who have decided their services are needed at home, in the face of populist “crises” ravaging the US and Europe.
In the Belvedere, the reason for May’s absence was apparent from the first step in the door. There, in the main lobby amid all the corporate branding for the banks and consulting firms that make the hotel their home base for the duration of Davos, flew the Union flag of the UK along with the slogan “Free Trade is GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Very in-your-face, but it was hard to work out exactly who had hung it there. Was it a Brexiteer, anxious to promote the idea that after withdrawal from the EU, the UK would be free to trade with the rest of the world? Or was it a member of the Remain camp, pushing the line that Britain within the EU would be free to trade with the 27 other member of the customs union?
There were other conspiracy theories being spun around. It was a greeting flag, it was said, to welcome May on what would be a surprise visit after all. British business leaders — marginally more anti- than pro-Brexit — are due to hold their annual Davos lunch event on Thursday.
Some recalled that May was the star of the show there last year, before the Brexit debacle took such a serious turn. Maybe she would want to reprise that triumph? Such is the hectic pace at which rumor spreads in Davos that I heard the same notion being put around later in the day as hard fact. We shall see, but if it happens, you read it here first.
After the excitement of the Belvedere, the agenda moved to the Hilton hotel, back within the ring of steel that surrounds the main WEF congress hall. That was the venue for the welcome bash thrown by the WEF media team, which is always a “must attend” event. Even more so this year because the guest speaker was the distinguished British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. The nonagenarian TV supremo — maker and voiceover to the “Planet” series of nature programs on the BBC — was in Davos to spread the word about climate change, which is one of the hot topics of Davos 2019.
Adrian Monck, the WEF’s head of public and social engagement and a former broadcaster himself, introduced Sir David with the words: “It’s not often you get to hear from a TV legend, but I don’t want to get into my TV career now,” drawing a few laughs around the room.
Sir David’s message on climate change and biodiversity destruction was rather more serious. “There are people here in Davos with enormous power, some who have more power than national states.
I want to tell them that we know what the matter is and we know what we can do to fix it,” he said.
He hopes his new documentary series “Our Planet,” which will air on Netflix, will help change perceptions, especially among climate change deniers. Sir David resisted the chance to criticize President Donald Trump, maybe the denier-in-chief, but he did say: “It is easy to say the problem does not exist, so we need bold action and bravery.”
- Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai