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Davos welcomes annual talkfest

Business and political leaders rub shoulders at the Forum's launch. WEF

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum has begun in Davos, once again turning the Swiss mountain resort into a potential stage for world events.

The Swiss government is hoping to use the five-day forum to resurrect stalled world trade negotiations.

The economics minister and current Swiss president, Joseph Deiss, is due to host a crisis meeting on Friday involving around 20 trade ministers, plus Supachai Panitchpakdi, director-general of the World Trade Organization.

Talks at the WTO’s ministerial conference in Cancun, Mexico, in September ended in stalemate, with agriculture proving a major sticking point.

“We wanted to take advantage of the presence in Davos of several trade and economics ministers,” said Manuel Sager, spokesman for the economics ministry.

“The aim is to discuss how to break the deadlock and resume negotiations.”

Big Swiss presence

Switzerland is sending five of its seven cabinet ministers to the annual WEF gathering, which will be opened by Deiss.

Alongside them will be several high-profile Swiss corporate bosses, including Walter Kielholz from Credit Suisse, Novartis chief executive Daniel Vasella and Nestlé’s Peter Brabeck.

They will be rubbing shoulders with more than 2,100 political leaders, captains of industry and academia. Around 30 heads of state have confirmed they will be attending.

Heading the list of big-name attendees are the likes of United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan; the United States attorney general, John Ashcroft; the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf; Britain’s foreign secretary, Jack Straw; and his French counterpart, Dominique de Villepin.

And in a sign that the White House is keen to involve itself in Davos, the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, has confirmed his participation.

José-Maria Figueres, the WEF’s co-chief executive officer, told swissinfo that this year’s meeting would “raise more than one eyebrow”.

“It’s not in the public domain yet, but there will be two big surprises. One towards the beginning and one towards the end,” he said.

Security nightmare

With so many luminaries present, the Swiss authorities will again be faced with a massive security challenge.

Thousands of military and police personnel have been mobilised to secure the 1,560-metre-high resort, while in the skies above Davos a strict no-fly zone has been imposed.

Organisers are also hoping to avoid some of the ugly street clashes that have marred previous summits.

Although the Swiss expect fewer anti-globalisation protesters than in previous years, there are worries that this year’s demonstrations could be more violent than in the past.

“We’re counting on fewer, but more radical, demonstrators,” Walter Schlegel, canton Graubünden’s security chief, said last week.

While Schlegel is not expecting a repeat of 2003, when around 6,000 people tried and failed to reach Davos, the authorities are not taking any chances.

The cost of keeping the WEF’s guests safe – which includes deploying thousands of troops and police in and around the resort – is likely to top SFr30 million ($24 million).

Quest for media sensation

If the authorities successfully keep the peace, participants inside the heavily guarded conference centre will be free to concentrate on some of the 257 separate sessions scheduled to run during the week.

They include themes such as, “Is China a foreign investment goldmine or minefield?”, “Shame as a policy tool” and “Would Monet approve of modems?”.

Some of the planned debates are clearly designed to generate global headlines – not least because the summit’s 400-plus journalists will be hungry for decent material to justify the expense of lodging in Davos for the week.

Iraq is likely to be high on the agenda, as is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Silvan Shalom, the Israeli deputy prime minister, and several high-ranking Palestinian figures are attending the WEF meeting.

Shaky optimism

Klaus Schwab, the WEF’s founder, said that the common theme at this year’s event was what he dubbed, “the Davos 2004 formula – security plus prosperity equals peace”.

“Without prosperity, you will never have sustainable security or a sustainable process of wealth creation,” Schwab told swissinfo.

“And in order to build a peaceful world, you need partnership. It cannot be done by one country alone.”

Schwab said recent optimism about the global economy would come under intense scrutiny this week.

“You have positive signs on the geopolitical and economic fronts,” he said. “But there are a number of unresolved problems.”

Poverty, environmental questions, the US budget deficit, European structural rigidities and Chinese banking issues were among the potential triggers for instability, Schwab said.

If the marathon Davos summit manages to successfully address even one of those issues, some of the WEF’s critics may be silenced.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber in Zurich

The World Economic Forum has its roots in 1971, when Geneva business professor Klaus Schwab organised a management symposium in Davos.
Since then, the alpine resort has hosted the forum almost without break.
The large majority of residents in Davos voted recently to support the hosting of future summits.
Schwab said it was “possibly the first time an international conference has been supported by the overwhelming majority of the population”.
The theme of this year’s summit is “partnering for prosperity and peace”.

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