Can Davos masters of the universe save the planet?

Attendees at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos have the collective power to make sweeping moves on climate change. (AFP)
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Updated 21 January 2020

Can Davos masters of the universe save the planet?

  • In recent years, the “masters of the universe,” as Davos-goers have become pejoratively known, have been on the back foot
  • The oil exporting economies of the Gulf have a big presence in Davos this year and it is easy to see why

LONDON: Davos is about framing narratives. If you run a company or country and you want to look forward to the big sweep of history before it happens, this is the place to start.
Recent meetings of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss alpine town have been preoccupied with the notion that the world is undergoing what Weffers have called the fourth industrial revolution — describing a period of accelerated technological change. In one way or another, it’s all been about disruption, that term beloved of management consultants and the golden fleece of the modern business world.
The fourth industrial revolution narrative tells us we should focus on the positives of change and that if we are “nimble” and “agile” we’ll be absolutely fine — like a child laborer skipping happily through the steaming pistons of a Victorian linen mill.
But this year’s event is looking beyond the “Uberization” of everything to disruption of a far more existential kind.
It seems, clever as we are, we are doing quite a good job of disrupting ourselves. To quote the Nature Risk Rising report released at Davos this week, the world’s 7.6 billion people represent only 0.01 percent of all living things by weight. Yet humans have already caused the loss of 83 percent of all wild mammals and half of all plants.
With bush fires blazing across Australia, the polar ice caps melting, and the Maldives struggling to avoid submerging altogether, Davos 2020 is big on the environment.
Environmental and business interests, so often polar opposites, are increasingly in alignment, as the cost of climate change becomes more quantifiable. From insurers to ratings agencies, the earth’s ledger of loss is now laid bare.
So don’t expect to see many grand carbon-intensive entrances via private jet or helicopter from world leaders this week, except from, well, you know who.
In recent years, the “masters of the universe,” as Davos-goers have become pejoratively known, have been on the back foot.
That’s largely because us serfs of the universe are getting ticked off with the growing inequalities created by globalization, technology and all the other stuff that we were told were forces for good - until we were made redundant and replaced by a smug little algorithm and our final salary pension scheme turned into a zero hours contract.
So back to narratives.
The oil exporting economies of the Gulf have a big presence in Davos this year and it is easy to see why.
Gulf states have already felt the impact of the disruption of their chief commodity export, and are rapidly re-calibrating their economies to fit into a new world where US shale oil is in abundant supply and where the combustion engine will become increasingly rare.
The petrochemicals sector is now also starting to feel the impact of disruption — especially so when the world’s largest polyethylene importer decides to ban single use plastic bags from its major cities — as China did this week on the eve of Davos — and where it is also sending a huge contingent.
Big oil has never faced such environmental scrutiny as it does now, which sets the scene for what is shaping up to be one of the most interesting debates around the world’s carbon economy.
It is no accident that the biggest consumers and producers of energy are out in such force at Davos this week.
Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish environmental activist, is the poster child of the gathering and arrives with a message for world leaders to abandon the fossil fuel economy.
In the prevailing narrative, the carbon economy is unquestionably the villain of the piece: Lord Voldemort, Freddy Krueger and Hannibal Lecter all rolled in to one.
But for both the big carbon-producing and consuming-countries, it is a much more complicated character, more misunderstood than mean.
For them the question is not whether fossil fuels are good or bad but how you can make them better within an energy mix that still ultimately requires them.
Carbon sequestration, that is the long term storage of CO2, will be among the ideas that are bounced around in the halls of Davos this week. The narratives that are produced here are simply stories — but they are very important stories that ultimately shape policy and change industries. In the case of climate change, they can change everything.


A homegrown UAE brand bets on date’s heritage appeal

Updated 29 February 2020

A homegrown UAE brand bets on date’s heritage appeal

  • Dates are locally sourced by The Date Room from around 20 farms in the Al Ain oasis area of Abu Dhabi
  • UAE farms grow about 475,000 tons of dates a year, a significant percentage of which is exported

DUBAI: When you can answer the classic business question about a unique selling proposition (USP) in six different ways, you likely have a successful product on your hands.

Thankfully, when you are dealing with dates, unusual product features are not a problem.

There are more than 3,000 date varieties around the world, but Emirati brand The Date Room is approaching the sticky business of breaking into an established market with just half a dozen local cultivars.

From the buttery, caramel notes of the golden Kholas date to the lower-carbohydrate Razaiz type, their flavors offer a change from the more commonly available Medjool and Deglet Noor varieties.

Being locally sourced from about 20 farms in the Al-Ain oasis area of Abu Dhabi, they are also introducing UAE residents to the nation’s heritage.

“Emirati dates are unique because they’re generally much richer in taste and texture than others on the market — although they can be smaller in size,” said Tony N. Al-Saiegh, executive director of The Date Room.

The Date Room launched with two luxury boutiques in the UAE last November after founder Ahmed Mohamed bin Salem spotted a gap for local fruit in a market dominated by produce from Saudi farms.

While official market share by origin data is not available, Saudi dates may control close to 90 percent of the UAE’s retail market.

Yet, with an annual production of 755,000 tons, Saudi Arabia trails Egypt, Iran and Algeria, all of which produce in excess of a million tons each year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

By contrast, UAE farms grow about 475,000 tons, a significant percentage of which is exported.

Dates are among the world’s oldest cultivated crops. The palm is native to the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, with origins that go back more than 5,000 years to what is modern-day Iraq.

The appeal of dates has grown considerably in recent years. Their high fiber and mineral profile have led to their classification as a superfood, they have been used for their high natural sugar content in healthy natural alternatives to processed candy bars.

“The Date Room’s main initial motive was the fact that our own farms produce a superior quality of date in every way,” Al-Saiegh said.

“Our families have been enjoying these dates with every meal and occasion for generations, so why not introduce it to the market in a way that makes them available to everyone but also promotes the unique culture of the UAE?”

The company’s annual production runs to about 160 tons.

For now, distribution is restricted to the UAE, but Al-Saiegh says his team is in talks with distributors in India and Indonesia.

With farmers everywhere agonizing over the impact of climate change, what are the challenges facing date farmers, accustomed as their crops are to heat and aridity?

Scientists expect 2019 to be the second-hottest year on record after 2016, and they forecast that by 2070, today’s major producers will suffer from a markedly unsuitable climate.

Despite palm trees being able to tolerate the heat for hundreds of years, Al-Saiegh says his farms are already feeling the impact.

“As the weather gets hotter and the summers get longer, it’s drying out farms and (arable) land. This means more water is required because a lack of water affects the size and texture of the fruit,” he explains.

While the full impact of those changes is some years away, the Abu Dhabi government has focused on conserving the UNESCO World Heritage oasis where the UAE’s dates are grown.

On the other hand, given the way technology has transformed the local agricultural sector with solutions such as vertical, indoor and soilless farms, Al-Saiegh may soon be able to add another distinguishing feature to The Date Room’s USP.

• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.