If you’re not a Swiss ski bum, a trip to Davos means just one thing: You’re going to the World Economic Forum.
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Fabrice Coffrini, AFP/Getty Images A Swiss police sniper stands guard on the roof next to the Congress center during the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 17, 2017.
The annual meeting of the world’s wealthy and powerful begins Monday in a frigid mountain ski town two hours outside Zurich. Sure, the scenery in the Swiss Alps hamlet is gorgeous, but the 3,000 one-percenters who show up will mostly see the inside of a conference center.
This year, the globalist gathering features the usual collection of high-powered CEOs, earnest global do-gooders, politicians, academics, celebrities and a smattering of monarchs. Until last week, the headlining head-of-state was India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Now a prime spot on the agenda belongs to President Trump, who announced Jan. 9 he’d bring his populist “America First” message to the alpine village. He’ll become the first sitting president to speak at the conference since President Bill Clinton in 2000.
But let’s start at the beginning.
What is the World Economic Forum?
In 1971, Klaus Schwab, a German-born business professor at the University of Geneva, came back from a year at Harvard brimming with management ideas he wanted to share. He conceived of the European Management Forum and put together an academic symposium. The first forum drew 450 people — mostly academics and economists. In 1974, the forum invited some European politicians so they could figure out how to integrate Europe’s economies. Next came the CEOs of “the 1,000 leading companies of the world.”
The gathering went global in 1987 with a name change to the World Economic Forum. Now it attracts everyone from European monarchs to A-list Hollywood celebrities. And nobody calls it the World Economic Forum. Instead, it’s simply “Davos” for the Swiss town in which it’s held.
Through it all, Schwab has remained at the helm. When he welcomes the global elite Monday night at the forum’s Crystal Awards, he’ll be 79 years old.
Why do the rich and powerful flock to something that sounds so dull?
The high-minded gathering seeks to hash out the world’s most intractable problems. This year’s theme is “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Along with a series of panels on weighty topics such as worker displacement and Middle East peace, business people and politicians can hobnob — and make deals — on the sidelines. The forum even sets aside a dozen private, heavily guarded rooms so world leaders can duck out for bilateral meetings with one another.
Are they really that rich and powerful? Who’s going to be there?
In addition to Modi and Trump, heads of state include Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, Brazilian President Michel Temer, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Saad Al Hariri, president of Lebanon’s Council of Ministers.
Royals will also be on the scene. King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan are Davos regulars. King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium, along with their Prime Minister Charles Michel, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Queen Maxima of the Netherlands and her Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Prince Turki al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, King Felipe VI of Spain and Britain’s Princess Beatrice of York are all on this year’s participant list.
On the business side, there is Facebook’s Sheryl Sandburg, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.
A smattering of celebrities with passions for global issues lend a little glamor to the event. Last year, Matt Damon touted his water charity, Shakira urged better education for underprivileged children and Amal and George Clooney made the rounds. This year, accepting Crystal Awards for “artists who are bridge-builders and role models for the global community” are actress Cate Blanchett, musician Elton John and Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan.
But there’s a little problem with the guest list
Pundits never tire of poking fun at the hordes of dark-suited middle-aged men traipsing down the Davos Promenade to their after-hours cocktail parties with barely a woman in sight.
That’s because for years, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting has had a stark gender imbalance.
Just 21% of the participants are women this year. And that’s an improvement. In 2015, women accounted for 17% of the participants.
Leaders of the multinational businesses themselves have pledged to put more women in leadership roles at their companies in hope of reaching parity. The Forum has sought to recruit more women and give them top billing on panels. Indeed, for the first time in its 47-year history, the gathering will be chaired entirely by women. Seven women — and no men — formed the committee that set the agenda for Davos 2018.
Who will grab the headlines?
Trump, of course.
Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping caused quite a stir during his opening address when he cast China as the world’s best hope for stability during a Trump presidency and made a forceful case for globalization, which was seen as a sharp rebuke to Trump’s trade policies.
It’s an unusual venue for Trump, who will close the conference with his speech Friday afternoon. Many of the world leaders who attend are vocal critics of the president and the global kumbaya vibe at the conference seems at odds with his disdain for free trade pacts, globalization and foreign aid.
“The president welcomes opportunities to advance his America First agenda with world leaders,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said at a press briefing following the announcement.
Still, Davos is a very good place to talk deals.
“At this year’s World Economic Forum,” Sanders said, “the president looks forward to promoting his policies to strengthen American businesses, American industries and American workers.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explained it like this at a media briefing last week: “I don’t think it’s a hangout for globalists. I think the idea is the economic team is going to go over and talk about the America First economic strategy. We’re thrilled that the president is coming. And I think what we know is that the economy that’s good for the U.S. is good for the rest of the world.”
Mnuchin along with a significant chunk of the Cabinet will come along. The official delegation includes: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Thomas Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, USAID Administrator Mark Green, Senior Advisor Jared Kushner and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
In addition to the official delegation, Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn will travel with Trump.
That’s a big change from last year, when the conference coincided with Trump inaugural and the only member of Trump’s team on the participant list was Anthony Scaramucci, founder of the hedge fund SkyBridge Capital and a part of Trump’s transition team.