If any one gathering has symbolised the strength of globalisation since the end of the Cold War, it is the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Leaders of governments, big corporations, technology, non-profits and media from throughout the world would meet with a general sense of convergence. However, in the past decade that theory has hit obstacles, from rising US-China competition to the fallout of Brexit and the presence of Donald Trump, the former US president who was known for his isolationist policies.
Then Covid-19 hit, with countries sealing their borders and putting self-interest first to obtain vaccines, and globalisation never felt so troubled. The meeting was held online last year and postponed this year, reflecting the new reality facing the world.
Although this meeting is in-person, Covid-19 continues to put up unprecedented barriers between nations, with participation from key countries like China affected by their rigorous pandemic-related policies. Each person registering must be fully vaccinated and tested before getting the all-important official participant's badge.
Much has already been said about the meeting taking place in May rather than the usual third week of January. In addition to the melting away of snow, it seems apt that the meeting is taking place in spring, bringing hope that, despite the troubled state of the world, there will be renewal after the devastation of the pandemic.
The test for the 2,500 participants this week will be whether any lessons have been learnt. It will be an opportunity to take stock as they address the challenges that have come with the start of this decade. The timing of the meeting — some three months after the invasion of Ukraine — is pertinent, as the war and the sanctions on Russia that swiftly followed raise questions about the international financial system, energy markets and global governing.
One of the key principles of the forum is finding a win-win solution for all actors — even if it is more theoretical than practical. Often, those grappling with major conflict found it hard to apply that principle to their own national troubles, be it in Afghanistan or Venezuela. The Ukraine war has brought that point into sharp focus for Europe. One telling sign is that “Russia House”, a building that the Russian government and affiliated entities would usually set up on the main promenade in Davos to promote their country, has been taken over by opponents to the Ukraine invasion and renamed “Russian War Crimes House”. As the war rages on in Ukraine, there is little public discussion about diplomatic options to end the war.
With Ukraine taking centre stage, there is less of a focus on other geopolitical areas. However, both the energy crunch resulting from sanctions on Russia and continued concerns about climate change mean that energy supplies and the green transition will be front and centre of discussions, with key energy producers like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar present. Finance and technology are primary concerns in this regard, and leaders from around the world will tackle them, including US Climate Envoy John Kerry and Egyptian Minister of International Co-operation Rania Al Mashat, whose country will be hosting Cop27 this year.
Major corporations, from Meta to UBS, have their top ranks at the meeting too, as questions arise about how we work in a post-Covid world and how the impending financial woes from global inflation and the energy crunch will affect them.
While the meeting this week may not come up with all the solutions, it is an important milestone in moving past the emergency phase of the pandemic towards serious stocktaking and global adjustment.