Big thinkers gather to set the world to rights at Davos

As the delegates prepare to discuss 'resilient dynamism' at the World Economic Forum, an interesting side issue is whether more immediate events will distract from the central theme.

Powered by automated translation

"Events, dear boy, events," the former British prime minister Harold Macmillan is believed to have replied when asked by a journalist what was most likely to blow his government off course.

It's a response delegates of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual bash in Davos, starting on Wednesday, will probably relate to as they pack their suitcases to head to this year's gathering.

Each year, the brightest thinkers dream up a worthy-sounding theme aimed at inspiring participants in their goal to solving the world's problems. This year's theme - "resilient dynamism" - is no different.

But often, the urgency of unforeseen events outside the snow-capped Swiss mountain retreat threaten to blow delegates off course.

Two years ago it was the political upheaval erupting in parts of the Middle East that hijacked the agenda. While the official programme continued to plod along with its sessions ranging from sustainable development to climate change, press conferences and corridor chatter was dominated by the escalating political instability unfolding in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

By the end of the five-day gathering delegates were grappling with the thorny issue of wealth inequality: a topic emerging as one of the likely causes of the unrest. Both China and India outlined how they hoped to reduce the income gap in their countries.

Two years on, and with several political leaders overthrown since the onset of regional unrest, the Arab Spring will again loom large at this year's gathering. The prime ministers of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco will attend to spell out reform plans and shed light on the transitions in their countries.

Most pressingly, a focus is likely to fall on Syria as the civil war that has so far claimed more than 60,000 lives enters its second year. With international intervention so far limited to a support role, participants will discuss what more they can do to help bring the violence to a close.

At an economic level, eyes will also be trained on Egypt's government to see whether it can finally strike a deal with the IMF to secure a US$4.8 billion (Dh17.63bn) loan. It needs the cash to shore up dwindling public finances and avoid an unorderly depreciation of the Egyptian pound.

In recent days, events playing out in another part of Africa may yet also muscle their way on to the agenda. The Islamist insurgency in Mali and the hostage crisis in neighbouring Algeria will require careful handling by the international community.

Still, delegates will be heartened by recent readings about the health of the global economy. The United States economy's successful avoidance of the fiscal cliff, signs of a waning in the intensity of the euro zone crisis and a pick-up in China's growth all provide a rosier backdrop to the gathering this time than in recent years.

But despite signs of a clearing of economic clouds, attendees still have plenty to worry about this year. Wealth inequality will again occupy the minds of many participants.

Along with unsustainable government finances, the issue was placed as the biggest economic threat facing the world by more than 1,000 experts and industry bosses surveyed in the Global Risks 2013 report, the annual WEF study to gauge the mood of bigwigs attending Davos.

After a year of extreme weather in many parts of the world, some of which has been linked to climate change, greenhouse gases were ranked as the third biggest worry in the survey.

WEF will offer dozens of sessions where 2,500 participants from business, government and academia will debate such issues.

Time will tell whether more immediate events in the coming days will emerge to distract Davos man from his task of improving the state of the world.