Davos readies for power play

Agence France Presse

Davos, January 26:

More than 2,000 business and political leaders and a dash of celebrity gathered on Wednesday in the Swiss ski resort of Davos for five days of brainstorming on the world’s biggest challenges, from climate change to poverty via the ethics of globalisation.

British prime minister Tony Blair was to kick off the World Economic Forum day with a keynote speech focusing on the need to master climate change, a key theme of his chairmanship this year of the G8 group of industrialised nations.

President Jacques Chirac of France was also due to fly in by helicopter — weather permitting — later Wednesday, while Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder will also drop in.

Organisers brag that Davos offers an unprecedented opportunity for leaders to thrash out solutions to global problems, although much of the draw of this forum is the chance to network in bars, corridors and behind closed doors. Fred Sicre, one of its managing directors, said he had detected a new mood in the political and business world.

“I think the mood has changed,” he said. “After two years of polarisation over Iraq, and then the tsunami, I think there’s a mood of looking at more debt relief, at assistance. The message is, exchange ideas, but then let’s take some action.”

The mix of social, political, business, academic and religious figures is the heart of a spree of conferences, workshops, parties and impromptu hallway talks drawing 2,200 participants from 96 countries. The A-list at Davos will also include new leaders such as President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and, hopefully, Palestinian chief Mahmud Abbas, while Executive Vice Premier Huang Ju will symbolise China’s growing global presence.

However, US representation is relatively low-key, with Trade Representative Robert Zoellick the highest-level figure, partly because Davos coincides with confirmation hearings for the second-term US administration.

On Thursday, Blair is also to examine relations between rich countries and Africa with former US president Bill Clinton, presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Irish pop star Bono. Anti-globalisation activists have permission to protest what they see as a celebration of free-market capitalism, although security is otherwise tight in this picture-postcard setting.

Switzerland has mobilized up to 5,000 troops, a squadron of F-18 fighters and 50 helicopters to protect the well-heeled and well-connected, who also include actors Sharon Stone, Angelina Jolie and Richard Gere. Unlike the last few years, when terrorism and the war in Iraq dominated the agenda, there is no overriding theme this year, although the situation in

the violence-wracked country ahead of weekend elections will still feature.

Middle East peace could get a boost if Abbas arrives here to join Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and deputy prime minister Shimon Peres.

The fight against AIDS and its economic cost to companies is also tipped as a top subject.

Efforts to combat disease in the developing world got a major shot in the arm from news that the family of US software titan Bill Gates and Norway had pledged one billion dollars to support vaccines for poor children.