Davos 2024 will set the tone for a turbulent year

The urgency of problems such as climate change and war in the Middle East make the World Economic Forum's annual meeting one to watch

A police officer takes position on a roof ahead of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Nearly 1,600 business leaders, as well as 60 heads of state and government, will gather at the Swiss resort this week. Reuters
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If there is a defining motif for our troubled times, it is the way in which we can watch a collection of global crises play out in real time. Thanks to modern communication modes and technology, it is possible to follow renewed war in the Middle East, rising political polarisation and the malign effects of climate change as they unfold. This creates an understandable desire to see something be done about it – and quickly.

But, as Chinese general Sun Tzu observed in the 6th century BC, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Policies that lack precision or direction are almost as bad as inaction. That is why critical conversations that bring together influential and informed figures to set an agenda for action remain essential. The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting that is underway in Davos, Switzerland, is one such global brainstorming session.

Over the next four days, nearly 1,600 business leaders, including 60 heads of state and government, 800 chief executives, media leaders and 200 social entrepreneurs and youth leaders will focus on burning issues and make the kind of connections that might not be possible in more politicised or decision-oriented forums. A possible meeting between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and a delegation from China, for example, could be an important one for breaking the deadlock between Ukraine and Russia.

The range of topics at Davos this year – the global economy, the rise of AI, the threat posed by disinformation, and the green agenda – speaks to the meeting’s ambition. But Davos is part of a wider diplomatic whole that includes other gatherings, such as annual summits held by the Brics nations, the G20, or other imperfect-yet-indispensable bodies, such as the UN.

Nonetheless, Davos often sets the tone for the rest of the year – one that will witness dozens of national elections. The event also has the potential to maintain momentum on previous international wins. A successful Cop28 climate change summit in the UAE became a historic milestone in the transition to a green economy; this week’s important convergence of political and business figures at Davos can help further develop that agenda.

Much of what will be discussed at Davos has particular relevance for the Middle East. Even though there is no Palestinian political presence at Davos, many regional leaders are present and actively engaged in this week’s agenda. Many in the region will be watching closely to see what innovative thinking could emerge on political instability and conflict; economic diversification and sustainability; climate change and water scarcity; health care and other social challenges. Another key area of focus will be AI. The excitement generated by this technology is palpable, but the risks are many. Aside from the threats posed by disinformation – as the WEF’s Global Risks Report outlined last week – if AI is used in a way that exacerbates global inequalities, the consequences could be severe.

In a world that’s come to be defined by crisis and anxiety, impatience to see something being done is rife. But it is exactly the urgency and interconnectedness of all these issues that make the need for dialogue more pressing than ever.

Published: January 16, 2024, 3:00 AM
Updated: January 17, 2024, 10:06 AM