A sign at sunset in the Congress center ahead of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 19. Photo: AFP/ Fabrice Cofferini

Global decision-makers gather in Davos starting Tuesday for their annual meeting, with challenges facing the planet – from climate change to conflict in the Middle East – as imposing as the Alps that surround the Swiss resort.

Observers fear the annual World Economic Forum will serve only to again expose the differences between East and West, the US and the EU, and business and activists in combating the most burning threats at the start of the third decade of the twenty-first century.

But organizers of the event, which goes back almost half a century to 1971 – when the world was without mobile phones, climate change was not a concern and nations wee locked in the Cold War – seek to tackle the issues with a long list of guests from all sides.

US President Donald Trump will likely hog much of the limelight, but also present for the second straight year will be Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose famously hard stare at the American leader at the UN General Assembly symbolised anger over inaction on global warming.

Another issue set to darken the snowy Davos horizon is the risk of conflict between the United States and Iran, as tensions spike following the US killing of a top Iranian commander and Iran’s subsequent accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, however, cancelled his planned participation at the four-day forum, removing any chance of a showdown – or even a meeting – with Trump.

‘No firm foundation’

With Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng leading a top-level delegation from Beijing, the trade dispute between China and the US will also be at the center of attention, even after this week’s signing of a deal that marked a truce after two years of tensions.

The key European figures present will be EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who may only serve to highlight the extent of differences between Europe and the United States on key issues.

“On climate change and on many global conflicts – such as the US conflict with Iran – US and European leaders disagree not just on the solution but also on the very nature of the problem,” Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.

He said that while EU leaders see climate change as an “existential challenge,” Trump considers it a “Chinese hoax.”

The two sides are also at loggerheads over the Iran nuclear deal from 2015 that was supposed to defuse the risk of conflict with Tehran.

“None of this is a firm foundation on which to build common solutions to vexing global problems,” Shapiro said.

‘Fog of uncertainty’

In its global risk report issued ahead of Davos, the World Economic Forum singled out popular discontent over a lack of economic stability, climate change, unequal access to the internet and healthcare systems under stress as the key challenges for humanity.

With the fires that have ravaged Australia attracting global attention, it said “climate change is striking harder and more rapidly than many expected,” with temperatures on track to increase by at least three degrees towards the end of the century.

And global health systems risk being “unfit for purpose” as non-communicable diseases –such as cardiovascular diseases and mental illness – replace infectious diseases as the leading causes of death.

Another threat is the growing distrust of vaccines as well as the increasing resistance of many germs to antibiotics and other drugs.

“The world cannot wait for the fog of geopolitical and geo-economic uncertainty to lift,” the report said.

“Opting to ride out the current period in the hope that the global system will ‘snap back’ runs the risk of missing crucial windows to address pressing challenges,” it said.

Trump’s appearance at Davos from January 21-22, his second after speaking there in 2018, will coincide with the start of his landmark impeachment trial at the Senate on January 21.

“I expect him to send a message to the American people and not to the international community,” Carlos Pascual, a former US diplomat and now a vice president at IHS Markit, told AFP.

“The purpose of that message is to reinforce with the elector in the United States that his number one concern in international policy is ‘America first’.”

Origins

The World Economic Forum in Davos is a can’t-miss stop for the global elite, but who would have guessed that its origins go back to the European revolutions of the 19th century?

From the color of the access badges to the writer Thomas Mann, here are five things to know about the once-a-year business blowout.

What is ‘Davos’?

Davos is shorthand for the World Economic Forum, which was founded in 1971 by German business professor Klaus Schwab as a way for European corporate leaders to learn from their US peers.

Political leaders started attending later in the 1970s, and since then it has morphed into an annual jamboree where the global elite – joined by intellectuals, activists, celebrities and sometimes protestors – sit on panels and debate the world’s problems.

White card privileges

Dressed in business suits and hiking boots, attendees converge on the Congress Center, a concrete bunker about half-way down the town’s Promenade, where access is strictly limited with the area fenced off and patrolled by highly armed police.

Life in the Congress Center is ruled by the color of your badge (except for actual ministers and leaders who cruise the halls badgeless). In Davos you are white, orange, purple or green.

White badges open all doors and are generally given out to corporate executives, government officials and media leaders.

Holders of white badges can attend the hundreds of sessions, lunches, dinners and night-caps, as long as they sign up through a dedicated app beforehand. White badge life is strictly off the record.

Most journalists operate with the orange badge, which offers limited access to the Congress Center and surrounding hotels. Still, reporters get unparalleled proximity to the world’s most powerful with the orange badge but are blocked entry to VIP rooms and special meeting areas.

Purple badges are for technical workers, while green badges go to the entourage of top officials.

Night life

Davos has a reputation for being one crazy party, despite the ponderous themes on the official program.

The fun takes hold in swanky chalets, many of them former sanitoriums, that line the promenade with the more exclusive addresses discreetly tucked behind pine trees higher up the hill.

Corporations and emerging nations wanting influence host dinners and cocktail parties that can go on into the small hours of the morning.

In 2018, San Francisco cloud company Salesforce held a Hawaii luau and lined up 90s rockers The Killers as entertainment. Google parties were the hottest ticket a decade ago, but have since become more studious affairs.

Many events take place at the Belvedere, a hotel whose halls become a lobbying labyrinth of corporate suites, cocktail parties and secret dinners, where executives, public servants and leading journalists exchange bon mots and business cards.

Revolution to sanitorium

Davos first became a resort destination in the 19th century thanks to a German asylum-seeker who crossed into Switzerland to evade an anti-radical clampdown by German authorities in the wake of the 1848 revolution.

A refugee, Alexander Spengler was offered a job as a country doctor in this lost Alpine valley and soon noticed that local farmers could clamber up mountains and toil land without losing breath or breaking a sweat.

From that, Spengler would launch a health care revolution, turning Davos into a Belle Epoque place-to-be where well-heeled Europeans took the long road from Zurich to treat tuberculosis and other long diseases, which killed thousands of every year.

Magic Mountain

One visitor to the rarified air was Katia Mann, wife of Death in Venice author Thomas Mann. She spent months sitting on the spa terraces bundled up in blankets, receiving treatment.

Thomas Mann used the experience to write The Magic Mountain, his allegory of Europe’s pre-Great War society, published in 1924 and considered to be one of the greatest works of world literature.

Hans Castorp, the hero of the novel, heads to Davos to visit a sick cousin but gets entangled in sanatorium life and its motley cast of characters, staying on the mountain for seven years before throwing himself tragically into fighting in the trenches of the First World War.

– AFP

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