x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Dubai takes key role in setting world to rights

The man whose job is to make the WEF relevant says next month's summit will act as the brains trust, think tank and incubator for the World Economic Forum meeting in January.

Lee Howell, the managing director of the World Economic Forum, says leaders must be ready to take risks. Adrian Moser for the The National
Lee Howell, the managing director of the World Economic Forum, says leaders must be ready to take risks. Adrian Moser for the The National

The World Economic Forum, held annually in the Swiss Alpine town of Davos, is renowned as an intellectual marketplace for new ideas on global political, economic, social and cultural issues.

Lee Howell's job is to ensure that the right ideas get discussed. The managing director of the WEF is responsible for the editorial content of the forum, and for perhaps the most significant publication to come out of the organisation: the annual Global Risk report.

"The theme this year is 'resilient dynamism', but that needs some context," he says.

"The world is facing risks from another shock to the global economy, and facing challenges from Wall Street, Brussels, even mother nature in the form of climate and natural disasters.

"But you cannot control these events, they are exogenous variables, so leaders have to learn to make themselves resilient to them, and that requires dynamism to get out of the inert position we're in at the moment.

"Leaders have to take risks in order to return to growth and employment, and businessmen have to risk their capital to get those rewards," he says.

This risk-reward equation will be one of the dominant themes of the WEF in January, but before then Mr Howell has another task - to head up the summit of members of its global agenda council in Dubai next month. What gets decided in Dubai, when 1,200 experts from around the world gather to discuss the big issues of the day, will decide what makes it onto the final agenda for Davos.

"The Dubai summit acts as a brains trust and a think tank for the WEF. It's an incubator for possible global and regional solutions to problems. I like to think of it also as a gigantic MRI machine, a super-diagnostic organisation for the human condition," he says.

Dubai has hosted this gathering several times before (although last year it took place in Abu Dhabi), but this time it seems entirely appropriate: the UAE is seen as a haven of stability in an increasingly fractious region.

"At multiple levels, the Middle East is so important. For its trade and capital flows, of course, but there are always significant global implications from developments in the region. The Middle East punches above its weight in all kinds of sectors that are of keen interest to the WEF, such as energy, food security, geopolitics and communications," says Mr Howell.

"On societal and social issues, the Middle East really is part of the global conversation. There are a couple of big stories where the region is at the forefront of developments: the evolution of mobile and internet technology, and how this affects society; and the great debate about demography that's taking place all round the world.

"In Korea, Japan and China - the part of the world I grew up in - these countries are poor on natural resources and have ageing populations. But in the Middle East it's the opposite. There are great energy resources, of course, but also a very young population.

"With so many young people, the nexus between education, employment and entrepreneurship is fundamental, and the world will be watching the Middle East to see how it handles that situation."

The region also figures high on the WEF's risk assessments on certain criteria, says Mr Howell.

"If I could just highlight three areas, the first would be the risk of global governance failure affecting the region. In the peace process, in Syria and on the Iranian nuclear situation global institutions, like the United Nations, have underperformed in the Middle East.

"The second concern relating to the Middle East is in the geo-economic sphere, and especially in the growth of income inequality, which is especially troubling for young people," he says.

"And thirdly there is an environmental risk relating to water security and supply that is of vital concern to the region."

Next month in Dubai the WEF is experimenting with a new technique for understanding and dealing with world issues. Regional organisations such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and the Arab League have been invited to the summit to give it greater regional perspective.

"We all face similar global issues, but what's of concern is how they play out on the regional level. These institutions form the front line for dealing with problems, and we need them to take a greater role, to learn from each other and from global experts."

The Davos meeting will be the biggest in its 41-year history. It has sometimes been criticised as a talking shop that achieves little practical result, but Mr Howell is focused on a pragmatic outcome this time.

"We are facing major leadership transitions in a volatile and uncertain environment.

"I'd like to think Davos can help world leaders understand the need for resilience in the face of future global shocks, and persuade them to take action, and some risks, especially in economics."