x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Not much sunshine but a lot of noise as Abu Dhabi welcomes WEF delegates

The World Economic Forum delegates roll into Abu Dhabi but the sun doesn't come out to welcome them.

The World Economic Forum summit rolls into town again.

This event has been held in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi for the past six years, as a prepping session for the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January. It’s always a stimulating jamboree, playing on the time-honoured formula of mixing intellectual debate with pleasure.

I did feel sorry, though, for the visitors from Geneva, who must have been looking forward to some Arabian Gulf sun just as Switzerland heads into the snowy season.

On the opening day, the WEF venue was shrouded by dark clouds, with a fair-sized sandstorm blowing and the threat of a downpour in the air. Not much chance of some winter sun in those conditions.

But the Swiss did not allow it to interrupt their relaxation. At the Yas Viceroy hotel terrace a fair number of “Weffers” took time out from the cerebral stimulation of the day, enjoying a pre-dinner drink despite the howling gale that enveloped them.

The Viceroy, of course, has a USP not many five-star hotels can boast: it is smack bang in the middle of the grand prix circuit, and just a couple of weeks ago was packed to the rafters with Formula One fans enjoying the Abu Dhabi race.

It’s good to see that the Marina Circuit is used for more than just the F1 weekend. Some enthusiastic amateur drivers were using it to put their machines through their paces. Even the resulting noise was not enough to deter the Weffers, however.

They continued their intellectual cut and thrust despite the ear-splitting racket of many litres of engine capacity just beside them. They build them tough in Geneva.

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The motor-racing allusions were not lost on the speechmakers at the event. Sultan Al Mansouri, Minister of the Economy, was not the only one to make reference to the fact that the summit was about “brain power, rather than the motor power we saw here a short time ago”.

I’ve been to many WEF meetings now in several places – Dubai, Istanbul, Jordan and of course Davos – and I’ve got to say the toughest thing to pull off, from a journalistic point of view, is the opening plenary session.

With so many sincere welcomes, expressions of gratitude and general good wishes all round, it runs the risk of being news-lite and humour-free.

It is of course a solemn occasion, considering that the WEF has as its founding principal the commitment to “improving the state of the world”.

But the Abu Dhabi summit was not entirely joyless. Mr Al Mansouri’s introductory talk took in a little history of the capital, from being a pearl fishing village 42 years ago to today’s metropolis. He reeled off the statistics of life in the modern capital: among the highest literacy and life-expectancy rates in the world, and an enviable standard of living.

“But statisticians can get it wrong sometimes. They say we are the 14th happiest place in the world, but that must be a mistake. I think we must be number one,” he quipped. The audience liked that.

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Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and chairman of the WEF, is a class act, there’s no denying that. He paid his hosts the highest of compliments by saying the UAE displays exactly the same qualities as the WEF: “Both are open, collaborative, inclusive and diverse,” he said.

His openness, however, is not limitless. One of the great perks of forums like WEF is that you get to have informal discussions with important people “on the sidelines”.

Not so for Prof Schwab. Any attempt by media to grab a quick word was met by a firm palm-off from his security staff, with the growled order “respect the protocol”.

fkane@thenational.ae