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WEF summit opens amid mounting global concerns

Security is tight for the annual WEF meeting in Davos Keystone

The World Economic Forum's annual summit in Davos opened on Thursday amid protests, security fears and a media frenzy that have made the 33-year-old institution famous.

This content was published on January 22, 2003 - 19:01

But this year there are serious doubts about whether the political and business leaders present have it in their power to make a difference.

"One could say that there are two groups [of people] holding illusions about the Davos gathering," says Beat Kappeler, a respected Swiss media commentator.

"One [group] is the CEOs there who believe that they can foster change around the globe. And the second is the opponents who believe them," he told swissinfo.

Paola Ghillani, head of the Max Havelaar free trade organisation, says concrete decisions at the summit are rare.

"Maybe we come to concrete action in theory, but in practice the day the forum is finished, people go home and forget about all the good resolutions we have taken."

Klaus Schwab, the WEF's founder, has acknowledged the mood of uncertainty hanging over this year's event.

Downbeat

He recently told a Swiss newspaper that he had never known a time when chief executives around the world were so downbeat about the future.

Some observers blame the gloom on the fact that many business leaders are facing issues over which they have little control, such as the so-called "war on terrorism" and the anti-globalisation movement - both of which continue to play havoc with bottom lines and economic growth.

None of these big issues would be of any consequence to delegates, were it not for the fact that the WEF summit has always set itself a high bar.

Shift to politics

Since its arrival in Davos in 1971, the forum's focus - once exclusively business - has steadily shifted towards politics - usually on a grand, and global, scale.

The WEF has made much of its ability to bring sworn enemies together, thanks in part to the summit's informal, convivial atmosphere.

One of the biggest geo-political "trophies" claimed by the WEF was the historic 1994 meeting between Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres - credited with paving the way for the Oslo peace accords.

Around the same time, Nelson Mandela - fresh from two-decades behind bars - used Davos to successfully convince South African industrialists that a black government would not nationalise every business in sight.

And then there was the 1987 speech by the then German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who urged the West to give Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev a chance - a signal regarded by some historians as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

Sweeping agenda

This year, organisers hope to score goals on issues such as the perceived split between the Islamic World and the West - as well as the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.

Adding to that is this year's central theme - the idea that trust, particularly public trust in institutions, is at an all-time low.

But Paola Ghillani of the Max Havelaar free trade organisation, believes part of the forum's weakness is that many participants take themselves too seriously.

"They [the participants] are not gods. If they were gods we wouldn't have all these problems."

Some observers, like Beat Kappeler, wonder whether the focus on politicians and politics has become too strong.

"In the early days of the forum you could meet CEOs in the bars for a talk," Kappeler says. "But now with all the security it's getting less and less possible."

Despite the criticism, this year's gathering has managed to draw its usual compliment of big names.

Heading the list of luminaries is the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, rubbing shoulders with 1,000 corporate bosses, 250 political leaders, 200 media executives and 200 prominent social activists.

As a gathering of movers-and-shakers, Davos is still the world's ultimate networking gig - a six-day platform for debate, grandstanding and perhaps a spot of skiing.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber

Key facts

Over 1,000 corporate chiefs and 250 political leaders, media executives and social activists are attending the WEF summit.
The sweeping agenda includes the nuclear crisis in North Korea and the global economic downturn.
This year's security bill stands at SFr13 million.

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