Throughout the week, political figures, businessmen and entertainers have attended multiple conferences, speeches and Q & A sessions as part of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort town of Davos. Yet while the fine wines were being drunk, while the Mercedes limousines shuffled people about and while the hotel lobbies looked a bit more gilded than usual, this year’s summit was memorable more because of who did not attend than because of those who did. Among top world leaders who were conspicuously absent included: Chinese President Xi Jinping, US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, French Present Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa and virtually all major figures from the influential ASEAN.
In other words, this year’s World Economic Forum was an elite gathering minus the elites. Instead of well known heads of state and government, one got technocrats, mid level diplomats and largely unknown advisers to famous world leaders. Whilst the German Chancellor, Japanese Prime Minister, Italian Prime Minister and new Brazilian President did attend, there was an overall feeling that this year’s World Economic Forum was something of a B-list party with a few has-been A-listers in attendance, along with a small handful of newcomers awaiting their big break on the world’s stage.
But whilst this year’s summit in Davos was as expensive an affair as more prominent summits in the past, beyond just cancelling his planned attendance, Donald Trump seemed to pile on the straw which broke the camel’s back of the World Economic Forum’s credibility and efficacy and do so from across the Atlantic. Beyond some of the richest people in the world talking about the kinds of poverty they have never experienced, adding insult to injury, one of the discussions at this year’s gathering in Davos was called ‘Rebuilding Societal Trust in Latin America‘. As this discussion was taking place, Juan Guaidó, a man who did not run in 2018’s presidential election in Venezuela, took to the streets of Caracas and swore himself in as President of Venezuela. Donald Trump took to Twitter in order to recognise the self-proclaimed head of state as Venezuela’s President and later, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo encouraged the Venezuelan military to overthrow the UN recognised President Nicolas Maduro. It goes without saying that the US engineered Venezuelan Twitter Coup was far more exciting than whatever was being simultaneously discussed in Davos regarding ‘Rebuilding Societal Trust in Latin America’. The only pity is that the events transpiring in both Caracas and Washington were more existing than those in Davos for all the wrong reasons.
Making matters more amusing (again for all the wrong reasons) is that whilst Trump had previously taken to Twitter in order to cancel his planned Davos visit in order to work on ending the longest government shut-down in US history, he instead self-evidently took the time to help Venezuela’s government shut down for all intents and purposes.
Like a music festival, every political or economic forum needs a good headlining act and it seems that Angela Merkel who herself is in the midst of a phased withdrawal from the political leadership of her own nation, simply wasn’t the geopolitical equivalent of a Pink Floyd reunion. The draw was simply not big enough.
Although the Davos World Economic Forum is almost certainly good for the Swiss economy, it is difficult to say if it is good for much else at this point. Unless the Forum can downsize its extravagance whilst at the same time working to convince major world leaders that attendance is worth their while, the forum risks metamorphosing into little more than the world’s most expensive weeding with neither a bride nor groom.
Ironically, whilst many world leaders from Europe in particular boycotted Saudi Arabia’s 2018 so-called ‘Davos in The Desert’ forum, the Arab version of the more famous Swiss event actually appeared far more lively than the events this week in western Europe.
If Saudi Arabia could pull off a better event in at the height of the Jamal Khashoggi affair than Davos could do in the traditionally “slow” month of January, it means that in terms of both credibility and efficiency, the World Economic Forum is on life support.
By using Twitter to help stage a what amounts to a political coup in Venezuela while the not so great and forgettable good were wining and dining in Davos, Donald Trump may have well and truly ended the World Economic Forum’s prestige by deploying a weapon of mass distraction which overshadowed anything done and said at Davos.