Can Davos refocus minds on long-term crises?

The first fully in-person conference since the pandemic has a busy agenda

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The changing nature of the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos is a good means of gauging swings in the global economic mood. In recent years, as environmental issues get more attention, increasing criticism is being made of the many who travel to the event in private jets. For its part, the Forum encourages initiatives like off-setting carbon footprints from travel. And during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the event's largely successful shift online reflected global markets and a world of work that showed great adaptability. The Global Reset was another initiative to look at how the world will reset after the pandemic. In 2023, the event is back fully in-person again.

The environment and legacy of Covid-19 will continue to play a big role in this year's summit. But perhaps the defining aspect of this one will be the significant danger of a global recession, as historic events and challenges threaten the world economy. The World Bank cut its growth outlook for 2023 to 1.7 per cent last week, and in the WEF's own Global Risks Report, a survey of experts found that the cost of living crisis is expected to be the most significant risk in the next two years. That puts it ahead of natural disasters and extreme weather.

A leading cause is the double whammy of the war in Ukraine and today's global energy pressures. The two are very much linked. The Ukrainian first lady, Olena Zelenska, will participate in an online session run by a private foundation. Russian participants will be absent from meetings. The fact that 2023 is starting with talk mostly of more hostility between Russia and Ukraine stokes fears that peace, the necessary condition for true recovery, is a long way off. It has almost been a year since the war began. With no end in sight, world leaders should come together to make sure there will not be a two-year anniversary.

The strength of Davos is that it is not just politicians in attendance, but business leaders, artists, academics and activists, too. Their advocacy and testimony can help keep key issues at the forefront of international leaders' minds. An important camp this year comes from the world of tech, including Microsoft, Amazon and Zoom. After a troubling year with many lay-offs, the fragility of the once ascendant sector is yet another sign that things are troubling in the global economy.

While much of the issues in focus might stem from the West, there is a chance for all to contribute. The Middle East will play an important role this year. A Wednesday session entitled "Future by Design" includes three ministers from the UAE. In the dynamic Gulf region, whose economies appear more resilient than many fellow developed nations, navigating a world of "exponential change", which the event seeks to discuss, is something those in the GCC are well placed to explore. Saudi Arabia brings a large delegation, too. Their presentation of Vision 2030, a vast programme of investment and construction to diversify the national economy, will also be a valuable prompt for discussion.

Cop27 recently finished in Egypt. It is staying in the region for Cop28. The UAE will host it in November, and this year's Davos serves as an important chance to establish a roadmap that keeps the long-term issue on track, particularly as so many shorter-term ones mount.

After all, the climate plays a key role in today's difficulties, particularly in the Middle East. The region's fears over food security are partly linked to disruption caused by the war in Ukraine. That can eventually be solved, but fixing a deteriorating climate will be far harder.

There might be many challenges that need discussion, and a few days in a Swiss resort town cannot right the wrongs and solve the challenges of the world. But, as one of the most foremost meetings of global expertise, it can certainly provoke important conversations and keep long-term issues at the forefront of decision makers minds in an age of urgent short-term crises.

Published: January 17, 2023, 3:00 AM