It was hard to escape the obvious story at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week: there was never any question that the visit of Donald Trump would dominate delegates’ attention.
As usual, he generated both controversy and contradictions with a mixture of off-the-cuff and more scripted remarks. Wherever he went, everyone from his fellow world leaders to CEOs and celebrities were left in his shadow.
But this year’s Davos was about more than Donald Trump. Aside from the United States, the world’s superpowers were low-key; both Russia and China in particular appeared to shun the limelight. In that context, quietly and determinedly delegations from the Gulf states were writing their own narrative around the event theme, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”.
For those of us based in the region, there is something immediately different about seeing Gulf leaders dressed in Western business suits.
In the Swiss mountain air, formality and ceremony were less pronounced; discussions were open and focused.
There were welcome sights, like the Saudi-themed special lunch on Friday, where delegates were entertained ahead of Trump’s speech with Saudi Arabian culture and cuisine. The event was catered by three Saudi chefs, one of whom was female – note, by the way, that was 33 percent female representation, beating the overall Davos number of 21 percent. Progress was literally on the menu.
There can be no doubt that this past year has revealed serious fractures in the Gulf. The challenges of the Qatar crisis and the perennial issue of Iran’s relationship with its neighbours have dominated the agenda. But at Davos the conversation about both of those issues was distinctly progressive and pragmatic in tone.
UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, reaffirmed his message to Iran, urging it to focus on its own issues and act “like a normal country”. Elsewhere, at a breakfast organised by the Bahrain Economic Development Board, foreign minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa remarked that Iran needs to “stop reaching into its neighbours and start reaching out to them”. The message from these allies was consistent: change your ways, because we genuinely want to talk.
On another regional sticking point, Anwar Gargash flatly dismissed talk of a military conflict with Qatar, saying that the UAE is “expecting a change of behaviour” from Doha. The standoff, though, may not end any time soon; this is one fracture that the region has yet to glue back together.
While Saudi’s progress in its ambitious Vision 2030 plan clearly impressed many Davos delegates, perhaps it was the world’s first Minister for Artificial Intelligence, the UAE’s Omar Alolama, who most caught the eye atop the snow-capped mountain, showing where many of this region’s minds are focused.
Away from the exciting conversations about AI, clean energy and hi-tech transport solutions, there was also a message of transparency: KSA minister of finance, Majid Al Kasabi, talked of eliminating bureaucracy and acknowledged that Saudi Arabia is “not a perfect country”. Minister of economy and planning, Mohammad Al Tuwaijri, also acknowledged that “the eyes of the world” are on his nation.
This last point is especially pertinent. The ongoing crises in Syria and Iraq, which have dominated the international perspective on the Middle East in recent years, may be a step closer to resolution; but other, newer fractures have shown that the Gulf states cannot be complacent.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Yemen. My colleague Nic Robertson recently returned from the country and saw some of the efforts Saudi Arabia is making to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, which is more acute than ever, but also gained fresh insights into the scale of the problem. As Anwar Gargash put it, Saudi Arabia and UAE need to manage “the military file, the political one and the humanitarian crisis”. Any efforts to shore up Yemen’s devastated economy would to be useful steps towards some semblance of stability.
Yemen is an issue that truly sums up the need to create a “shared future in a fractured world”. Finding a solution to a crisis that impacts on all the Gulf states is something that must unite the major players in the region. This is the Gulf’s problem, and if Davos is anything to go by it is well placed to – eventually – find its own solution.
This week, of course, many of those at Davos will reconvene at the World Government Summit in Dubai. The conversations that began in the Swiss mountains must continue, to keep up the vital momentum that may, finally, be taking hold.
“We need to shift gears from the current normal, which is chaotic and religiously infused, to normal. This means security, the ability of the state to produce opportunity, with civic states rather than states that are looking into the past to find a golden age. We are winning the war against terrorism but we still need to fight the war against extremism.” Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs, UAE
“People are not used to Saudi Arabia moving quickly or moving boldly. Seventy percent of our country is under 30, they’re probably the most connected in terms of social media of anyone in the world. They know what’s going on. They have hopes and dreams and they want it now. We have to open up the path and get out of the way.” Adel Al Jubeir, minister of foreign affairs, Saudi Arabia
“What I represent is the change in this community, the integration of the man and the woman, the husband, the father and the daughter. The family is now engaging collectively in their lifestyles and that translates to how they spend their money, and how they socialise. That’s what I’m here to represent, not just the woman’s voice.” Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.