WRITER: John Defterios
Over four decades, the influential World Economic Forum at Davos has developed into an annual meeting that brings together the world’s leading CEOs and politicians, elevating this little Alpine town to a whole new summit.
At over 1,500 metres above sea level, the picturesque ski resort of Davos inspires those attending the World Economic Forum to take a step back and look at the big picture. In fact, it’s so awe-inspiring, that veterans of Davos often make reference to it as the Magic Mountain.
The name comes from an early 20th century novel by Thomas Mann, reflecting on life in the Alpine health retreat, and the mystery of time in a breathtaking setting.
Since the late 20th century though, Davos has been synonymous with the World Economic Forum and represents business and social networking on its grandest scale. As I’ve often said during my on-air analysis, WEF founder Klaus Schwab was into networking before networking was cool. He created the elite version of Facebook and Linkedin, which counts for something since both of those companies are now worth billions of dollars.
At this year’s WEF, nearly 40 world leaders were in attendance, 2,000-plus executives and an equal number of people, it seems, in the media – yet the agendas of the Fortune 500 CEOs today are too filled with bilateral meetings and back-door briefings to allow for the spontaneity that made this event such a runaway success.
Above: Petro Poroshenko, billionaire and Ukraine’s president, centre, leaves with his entourage following a Bloomberg Television interview on Wednesday, January 21st, the opening day of the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos.
I first came to Davos 25 years ago as a relatively junior correspondent, two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was arguably then, after nearly two decades in the conference business (the WEF was founded in 1971), that the Forum became a fixture on the global calendar.
The Forum has since evolved into somewhat of a circus; it’s eight times the size of what it was when I first attended and those paying about 30,000 USD to rub elbows in this crowd often grumble about the chaotic nature of it all.
I can remember it quite vividly, working out of what once was a military bunker. Today, we toil away in what is usually – outside World Economic Forum time each January – a spa area of the facility, labelled in multiple languages on the glass door!
In 1990, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl sat side-by-side with his East German counterpart Hans Modrow. That meeting before the global community, helped set the stage for monetary union, a huge unification fund for what became Eastern Germany and shortly thereafter, national elections.
The early 1990s at Davos were dominated by European reconstruction after the fall of Communism. Former communist party bosses came to the Forum to convince business leaders that a transition to market economics could be delivered. Boris Yeltsin made his Davos appearance during that chaotic transition from the USSR to today’s Russia – which under Vladimir Putin, seems to possess a nostalgia for the days of the Cold War.
In 1992, Chinese Premier Li Peng used the setting here in the Alps to articulate plans for the country’s economic opening up to the world. In 2015, it was Premier Li Keqiang on stage, promising to deliver seven per cent growth and stability.
In 1994, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres walked hand-in-hand in front of a packed audience, holding a public dialogue leading up to the creation and recognition of the Palestinian Authority.
The World Economic Forum, as the saying goes, was in the right place at the right time. While the author of the Magic Mountain talked about the complexity of time around World War I, in the 1990s, time was compressed here. The Fall of Communism, the lowering of global trade barriers, the opening up of China, the removal of apartheid in South Africa and the proliferation of the internet all unfolded in that decade.
As those events came together, so too did the major players as they made their journey to the Magic Mountain. Michael Bloomberg, evolving as a global name in financial data and then as Mayor of New York City, sat alongside Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. US President Bill Clinton outlined his party’s historic move to the political centre before the ‘global elite’. To spice things up, rock stars and actors turned activists chose the Davos platform: Bono, Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Brad and Angelina.
This year, I by chance waltzed into what many refer to as a “Davos moment”. The President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, had just finished his speech blasting Russia for its alleged incursions into Eastern Ukraine. Time seem suspended as he entered the main hall and made his way up the stairs with chief executives silenced by political power.
It is a venue which has welcomed countless political and business leaders, during internet booms and banking busts, in the midst of a Middle East crisis and during the lead up to two Gulf Wars. But that interplay between geo-politics and business – during the best and worst of times – is what keeps the Forum relevant. It allows this setting at the base of the Magic Mountain to endure and recreate something unique during what author Mann rightly described as the ongoing complexity of our times.
John Defterios is CNN’s Emerging Markets editor and anchor based in Abu Dhabi. He hosts the weekly emerging market property development segment ‘One Square Meter’ every Tuesday - www.cnn.com/onesquaremeter