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Davos really comes to the desert as the WEF arrives in Riyadh

There were elephants – and camels – in the room at the World Economic Forum event

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, spoke on Day 2 of the WEF gathering. His address was one of the 'best attended sessions', Frank Kane says in his video report from Riyadh Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, spoke on Day 2 of the WEF gathering. His address was one of the 'best attended sessions', Frank Kane says in his video report below from Riyadh

The World Economic Forum’s “Special Meeting” got off to a comparatively low-key start in Riyadh on Sunday – the first time Saudi Arabia has staged a full-blown WEF event after a few years of dancing around issues on both sides.

Would the security-conscious Saudis allow the “men from Switzerland” the freedom to organise potentially controversial discussions with the abandon they sometimes display in Davos?

Would the Swiss be sufficiently aware of the red lines in the kingdom, all the more vivid in times of heightened regional geopolitical tensions?

On the evidence of Day 1, there was sufficient give-and-take on both sides to produce a valuable and thought-provoking addition to the global forums circuit – even if it lacked some of the pizzazz of the Future Investment Initiative gathering known as “Davos in the desert” and the anarchic round-the-clock buzz of the WEF’s annual meeting in the Swiss Alps.

It was certainly smaller and less crowded than the other two events.

The Saudi Royal Guard, who assumed responsibility for security at the Ritz-Carlton conference complex, ensured an orderly event, although some members of the international media had difficulty getting the necessary security clearance.

The theme of the two-day forum is “global collaboration, growth and energy for development”, which is a neat way of encapsulating the biggest issue of the day in global economic and politics: will geopolitics derail progress on climate change and economic development? 

Saudi Arabia – at the cockpit of those tensions in the Middle East and a leading energy exporter – is the perfect place to consider the question.

Mohammed Al Jadaan, the Saudi finance minister, set the tone in an early panel session with the grave warning that ”geopolitical risks are possibly the No 1 risk as you look at the global economy” and urged “agility” by policymakers to head off the threat. 

Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, which is due to open a regional office in Riyadh, hammered home that message in a neat bit of alliteration: “We may end up with this decade being remembered as the Turbulent Twenties, or the Tepid Twenties, when what we actually want is the Transformational Twenties.”

The first of many “elephants in the room” – the risk of confrontation between Israel and Iran arising from the conflict in Gaza – was recognised when Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, arrived at the opening plenary session.

No stranger to the Davos circuit, Abbas repeated his call for the US to push for a two-state solution, saying it was the only way to end the conflict. “Only they can do it,” he declared.

Kristalina Georgieva, IMF managing director, told the forum the decade should be remembered as 'the Transformational Twenties'Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed
Kristalina Georgieva, IMF managing director, told the forum the decade should be remembered as ‘the Transformational Twenties’

Most of the WEF’s overarching themes came together in the first big set-piece devoted to energy. The session was called “People, policy, finance: realising an equitable energy transition” – and there were elephants aplenty in the chandeliered cavern of the plenary hall.

The hydrocarbon giants were well represented by Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, and his Qatari counterpart Saad Al Kaabi, as well as Darren Woods and Vicki Hollub, CEOs of ExxonMobil and Occidental, respectively.

It was a clash between those destined for ‘hydrocarbon hell or green heaven’, as one senior energy policymaker put it

You had to feel sorry for Kadri Simson, the Estonian politician and EU energy commissioner, as she pitched a decidedly different view from her co-panellists. But Børge Brende, the WEF president and the session’s moderator, did his best to even up the odds.

It was a clash between those destined for either “hydrocarbon hell or green heaven” – in the unattributable sarcasm of one senior energy policymaker – and though the debate stayed within civilised bounds, it had its moments.

Al Kaabi accused the environmental lobby of “demonising oil and gas for decades”; Woods called for an end to the “propaganda and politics”.

The panel became heated when it came to the issue of what was the real “elephant in the room”. Was it coal? Or the cost of energy transition? Or subsidies for fossil fuels?

Prince Abdulaziz cut through the rhetoric with the announcement that he had detected the “camel in the room”: the fact that the campaign against climate change cannot be waged within national boundaries, but has to be global.

Towards the end of the day a frisson went through the forum as it was whispered that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s prime minister and the patron of the event, was on his way. He duly arrived, oversaw a private meeting of forum dignitaries and departed, with much security fanfare.

At the end of Day 1, I was just a little underwhelmed. The clinical Swiss lines of the WEF signage did not quite gel with the Arabic splendour of the King Abdulaziz International Conference Centre. I’m sure it just needs time.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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