Rising Middle East tensions dominate Davos, with solutions to conflict unclear

War in Gaza, strikes on Erbil and Red Sea crisis focus of second day of WEF meeting

The Alpine resort city of Davos before the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. AFP
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This week was meant to be a week when Iraq, and especially the Kurdistan region of Iraq, showcased the economic opportunities in the region and country at the World Economic Forum.

For the first time in years, Iraq has a strong showing at Davos, and the Kurdistan region even has “Kurdish House” on the main street. Yet, on the eve of the annual meeting, many of those plans were up in the air when ballistics missiles launched from Iran struck Erbil, the Kurdistan regional capital, on Monday night.

Yesterday, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region Masrour Barzani said Erbil was “not party to the conflict” in the region but was being pulled in. The difficult case for investing in Iraq just got harder. The military role of Iran not only in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen but also in the provision of drones to Russia was raised during sessions yesterday.

That will be one of the issues expected to be raised to Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian when he takes the stage today. The wars in Gaza and Ukraine dominated geopolitical discussions.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, stressed the need for an immediate ceasefire in a packed session called “Securing an Insecure World”.

Responding to questions on the Red Sea attacks, the main concern raised in economic circles, he said: “We are incredibly concerned for regional security in general – priority needs to be de-escalation not only in the Red Sea but in the entire region.”

It was a sentiment echoed throughout the day.

The 2024 World Economic Forum in Davos - in pictures

Prince Faisal said that while the attacks were “clearly connected to war in Gaza – we need to focus on the war in Gaza not because of the Red Sea but because of war itself and the situation there with close to 30,000 civilians killed”.

“I frankly don’t see any strategic objectives Israel has claimed is coming any closer,” he said.

“We need a ceasefire immediately – continuing as we are now will lead to continuing cycles of escalation.”

He added: “Our emphasis is finding a path of de-escalation.”

The German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, called for a “sustainable ceasefire”, highlighting the division in views, yet she acknowledged “this is a total disaster, for Israel, for civilians in Gaza, for the whole world”.

“A spark can burn the whole region [and] not just the region. We feel the consequences in Ukraine [with] Russian attacks highest since the invasion,” she said.

The packed hall had illustrious attendees, including the king and queen of Belgium, UN envoys to Syria and Yemen and leading global chief executives – all of whom were looking for answers.

While the session addressed the war in detail, it was short in solutions. Ms Baerbock’s statement that “we are stuck in a vicious cycle” rang strongest.

Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh held a separate session and warned that some actions by Israel could be war crimes.

However, he stressed: “Comprehensive peace remains [the] strategic objective. [We] are firmly committed to the peace accords.”

How the peace can be reached remained unclear.

Updated: January 17, 2024, 5:17 AM