Opinion: Last week's World Government Summit was far more than a talking shop for interesting ideas, writes Shayan Shakheel
You’d be hard-pressed to name a reason why anyone goes to a snow-covered alpine town with a population of 11,000 in a corner of Switzerland called Davos – other than to ski or attend the World Economic Forum (WEF).
The world’s most exclusive talk-fest draws roughly 3,000 from the global elite to grapple with complex issues facing the world. This year, according to the WEF, its attendees committed to eating less meat.
Of course, that’s a dig and possibly a harsh one. As Professor Alberto Alemanno wrote in Social Europe last month, Davos has helped put issues such as climate change and global inequality on the map.
By banning all-male panels long before the #metoo movement, its organisers have actively worked to increase female participation on a stage men have long monopolised.
Unfortunately, as he also points out, its participants also failed to predict the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit and Donald Trump winning the US presidential election.
Meanwhile, 6,000km away, Dubai is doing something entirely different.
The Middle East’s sunniest experiment attracts over 15 million tourists each year to its beaches, malls and hotels, so it’s already poles apart as a destination.
But each year it holds its own congregation of global thinkers that, unlike the WEF, seems to be making all those who attend go “wow” at what is actually being done rather than debate what is theoretically possible.
At the sixth World Government Summit (WGS) last week, we heard how Dubai’s government-owned power utility, Dewa, will spend AED81bn to generate 25 percent of the city’s energy through renewables within 12 years, rising threefold to 75 percent by 2050.
In doing so, it will help the UAE, the world’s seventh biggest energy producer, reduce fossil fuel dependence, state expenditure and per capita electricity usage (Abu Dhabi’s ADWEA is already building the world’s largest solar power plant).
The contrast is perhaps no more evident than in how both events tackled cryptocurrencies”
At the other end of the summit, a 27-year-old UAE Minister of State for AI (artificial intelligence), the only such role in existence, pitched to the world’s biggest tech firms how they can bring efficiency and automation to the country’s manufacturing ambitions, while also helping a new generation develop employable skills.
That latter goal is being helped by the One Million Arab Coders programme in collaboration with Facebook, Udacity and the Dubai Future Foundation. Meanwhile, a $500m endowment to educate Arab youth at institutions around the world was also announced at the summit.
If the world was an IT company, WEF would be the watercooler where time is spent talking about “stuff”. WGS would be the room where the developers got working.
This contrast is perhaps no more evident than in how both events tackled cryptocurrencies. At Davos, global leaders continued to debate – and were unable to conclude – whether Bitcoin is a bubble.
In Dubai, UAE Exchange’s 41-year-old CEO, Promoth Manghat, told us he’s betting on the blockchain behind Ripple to trial instant financial messaging services with 100 international banks, because “10 years from now payment systems aren’t going to look anything like they do today.”
In his opening address to the summit, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, called Dubai, and by extension the UAE, “a miracle” and he’s right: the country is only 46 years old.
The plot of land shaped like a palm tree upon which luxury apartments now stand that we can see from our offices? 15 years ago, that district was under water. The only reason it isn’t now is because there wasn’t much time spent between imagining an artificial island and contracting a developer to draw up the blueprints.
Davos and Dubai are certainly two vastly different cities, as are the events they hold each year.
But if conversations like the ones at the WGS continue to progress the way they are, Dubai and the UAE could be drastically different places in 15 years. Davos, and the World Economic Forum, on the other hand, might still look exactly same.