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Global elite gather against WEF’s most complex backdrop so far

In World
January 09, 2024

NEW YORK – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French President Emmanuel Macron and key Middle East leaders are slated to attend next week’s World Economic Forum, putting talks to end wars in Gaza and Ukraine at the top of the agenda for the global elite.

The 54th annual WEF gathering in the Swiss ski resort of Davos will occur against its most complicated geopolitical backdrop to date, its president Borge Brende said on Tuesday.

A challenging global economic picture, with shifting interest rate policies and rising debt, will also confront the central bankers, financiers and business leaders attending.

A key closed-door session addressing this will be led by the chief executives at British-based bank Barclays and Canadian life insurer Manulife Financial Corp, according to a copy of the agenda obtained by Reuters.

Brende said much of this year’s focus would be high level diplomatic talks on wars in the Middle East, Ukraine and Africa.

“We will make sure that we bring together the right people … to see how we can solve this very challenging world”.

Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan would both attend, organizers said, making them the highest profile members of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration in Davos.

A White House official said Sullivan was expected to make a speech and that Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, would also attend. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Blinken and Sullivan will join key stakeholders in the conflict in Gaza, including leaders of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – both countries having emerged as Middle East powerbrokers – and Israel’s president Isaac Herzog in Davos.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and more than 40 foreign ministers will also be on site, organizers said.

Macron is expected to make a speech about France’s role in the future of Europe, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will also address the forum, organizers said. The Elysee French presidential palace did not immediately comment.

War in Ukraine has dominated the last two WEF meetings and while President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is again expected to make a speech, it was unclear if any Russian officials would attend.

China, a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin will be sending Premier Li Qiang, the most senior Chinese official to rub shoulders with global business and political leaders at Davos since President Xi Jinping attended in 2017.

WEF organizers also emphasized the attendance of key leaders from the Global South. The non-aligned group of Asian African and Latin American countries have largely stuck to the sidelines over the Ukraine war, after initially condemning Moscow.

Geopolitical risks have mounted around the globe in recent years, with Russia’s war in Ukraine and Israel’s war with Hamas militants, and the recent related impact on shipping in the Red Sea. China, meanwhile, has been increasing military pressure to assert sovereignty claims over Taiwan.

“Unfortunately, what the last couple of years has shown us with the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and several other crises around the world is that we were not that resilient,” said Bob Sternfels, Global Managing Partner, McKinsey & Company, referring to global cooperation in a briefing ahead of Davos.

“Without resilience, we can have real setbacks.”

‘COMPLICATED’

A complicated economic backdrop, including central bank policy and increasing debt, would also dominate the agenda, WEF managing director Jeremy Jurgens said.

“We are expecting 2.9% growth this year and at least the global economy is growing, but it could be doing better.”

Jurgens said that the two regions that stood out for increased participation this year were Latin America and Asia, reflecting “broader shifts in the global economy”.

Argentina’s newly-elected President Javier Milei is expected to attend.

A WEF official said 530 banking, insurance, investing and other finance executives are expected at the meeting.

One key event is the Jan. 17 closed-door Financial Services Governors Meeting, which will be attended by more than 100 chairmen and CEOs from banking, markets, insurance and asset management, an agenda obtained by Reuters showed.

Barclays CEO C.S. Venkatakrishnan and Manulife CEO Roy Gori will be co-chairs of the meeting, which will focus on navigating risk against a backdrop of geopolitical tension, macroeconomic uncertainty and technological disruption.

WEF organizers did not comment on the Governors Meeting.

Davos comes as companies face a complex backdrop of mediocre global growth while economies grapple with high interest rates, political risk and the after-effects of the pandemic.

“With matters such as ongoing geopolitical tensions, the urgent need to address climate change, economic concerns and rapid technological advancements influencing policy and boardroom decisions, this summit will be pivotal,” Deloitte Global Chair Anna Marks said in emailed comments.

To some, 2024 shows a return to focusing on the long-term.

Karen Harris, Managing Director of the Macro Trends Group at Bain & Company said recent WEF annual meetings were shaped by the pandemic, with 2021’s being virtual and 2022’s delayed.

“At 2023’s Forum we were still feeling the disruptions of all of those events, and discussion was centered on the economic recovery,” Harris said in emailed remarks.

“This is the first WEF in years during which our sights can really be on what the next decade will bring, rather than the compressed and volatile business cycle.” REUTERS

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