Davos 2024: Middle East conflict and climate threat take centre stage

Gaza invasion, war in Ukraine and artificial intelligence in focus as VIPs meet in exclusive Swiss ski town

The Alpine resort of Davos will host the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum from January 15 to 19. AFP
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The Swiss ski resort of Davos will host billionaire business people, philanthropists and world leaders this week in the shadow of conflicts that threaten to deepen divisions in the world order.

Russia's war with Ukraine will take centre stage on Sunday, on the eve of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting, when 120 national security advisers will meet to discuss a “Ukrainian peace formula”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will join the forum later in the week for the first time.

But the glitzy affair, attended by 2,800 business and industry leaders, is further overshadowed by Israel's war in Gaza and the crisis in the Red Sea that has disrupted a substantial part of global shipping.

American bombs fell on Yemeni rebel positions on Thursday and Friday night, with the Iran-backed Houthis threatening retaliation.

Here, we look at the topics expected to dominate the annual meeting in the next five days.

War and conflict

The war in Ukraine continued to play out over last year's annual WEF meeting in Davos.

No Russian officials and few, if any, business people attend the forum, and Ukraine last year commanded strong support from European attendees in particular.

The meeting of security advisers is expected to lead to pledges of support – Rishi Sunak's UK government pledged $3.19 billion for Kyiv on Friday – while others will stress the need to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table.

While it is a waiting game to see how AI will disrupt our daily lives, we are already seeing how individuals, businesses and countries alike, are preparing for what seems to be the inevitable and the imminent
Susheel Sethumadhavan, analytics lead, Kearney

The war in Sudan, fringed by reports of ethnic cleansing, is not formally on the agenda, although it may come up in conversation as an example of a failure of global diplomacy.

Most critically, the war in Gaza and the Red Sea crisis will permeate panel talks and debates throughout the week.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French President Emmanuel Macron and a number of Middle East leaders will be among the many figures expected to address the war. Israeli President Isaac Herzog and leaders from Qatar, Jordan and Lebanon are scheduled to attend.

“We know that the war in Gaza is still going on and there are worries for a further escalation,” Borge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum, said ahead of the meeting. Delegates will “look at how to avoid a further deterioration”.

The meeting takes place against the most complex “geopolitical and geoeconomic backdrop in decades”, he added.

Climate crisis

How the world can tackle the climate change crisis is a theme throughout the week across stages and sessions.

US envoy John Kerry will open a session on Tuesday ahead of a debate about the so-called First Movers Coalition, a collection of close to 100 nations committed to reducing emissions in “hard-to-abate' sectors such as aviation, chemicals, concrete, shipping, steel and road transport, which collectively account for more than a third of the world's emissions.

Discussions on the threat to permafrost, which will lead to dramatic sea level rises if global warming spirals out of control, and how to transform energy demand are other major themes.

We can further expect to hear a detailed unpacking of what happens next in climate action post-Cop28 in Dubai.

The WEF's pre-event global risks report warned that progress in human development is being “chipped away” at, with disinformation and extreme weather events two of the greatest threats.

The findings are a sign that climate change is finally front and centre in global dialogue, even among the WEF's jet-set decision-makers and billionaire business tycoons.

Artificial intelligence

A perennial buzzword on the conference circuit, artificial intelligence is a major theme of this forum.

“We’ve only just scratched the surface on what’s possible for individuals, businesses, and the economy with this technology,” Nigel Vaz, chief executive of digital consultancy Publicis Sapient, told The National.

“Fundamentally, I believe that digital is the biggest deflationary force there is to help businesses drive more growth at lower costs, get products and services out to market faster and create more efficiency in how they operate.

“The rapid pace of AI and digital transformation is poised to accelerate the creation of new jobs and in turn, accelerating global economic growth.”

Susheel Sethumadhavan, who leads consultancy Kearney's analytics practice, said there will be a focus on how AI can help us tackle challenges such as poverty, net-zero emissions and mental health issues.

“While it is a waiting game to see how AI will disrupt our daily lives, we are already seeing how individuals, businesses and countries alike, are preparing for what seems to be the inevitable and the imminent,” he said.

“The engagement between businesses and their customers will also vastly change, as companies look to hyper-personalise their products and services to their customers. At the same time, some of these engagements could increasingly seem a lot more intrusive.”

Global economy

The forum meeting will host central bankers, financiers and business leaders in discussions on a challenging global economic picture, shifting monetary policy and rising debt levels.

A widely expected US recession did not materialise last year, and experts are divided as to whether it will happen in 2024 – a year dominated by economic uncertainty stemming from the US elections.

High interest rates of around 5.5 per cent have put consumers off spending and sapped mortgage payers' finances.

In Davos, a key event to look out for is the closed-door Financial Services Governors Meeting on January 17. That brings together 100 chairmen, chairwomen, and chief executives from banking, markets, insurance and asset management.

On Wednesday, China will release full-year GDP figures for 2023. The world's second-largest economy is expected to hit its official 5 per cent growth goal. But how it intends to grow at the same pace in 2024 will be closely watched.

Who and what to watch out for

The mercurial Argentinian firebrand President Javier Milei is a rare populist rabble-rouser in corridors frequented by bankers and hedge fund bosses.

He is in conversation with WEF founder Klaus Schwab on January 17. The appearance has drawn comparisons with Donald Trump bounding onto the stage to the tune of a brass band six years ago when he delivered a belligerent America First speech.

Keep an eye out for Sam Altman, newly married chief executive of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, who was reinstalled to his position after a board revolt.

He is scheduled to discuss trust in technology alongside British Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt and Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French President Emmanuel Macron are two of the most prominent political figures to attend in a year when US President Joe Biden and British PM Rishi Sunak are absent, preparing for elections and growing domestic pressures.

Updated: January 15, 2024, 6:32 AM