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Davos without the fondue – the WEF Global Future Councils

The GFC is an insightful introduction to the World Economic Forum – and a nerd’s paradise

UAE Minister of State for AI Omar Sultan Al Olama speaks at the Global Future Councils event in Dubai Wam
UAE minister of state for artificial intelligence Omar Sultan Al Olama recounts how he was nearly conned by a robot cold-caller

Everyone knows the World Economic Forum for its January get together of the global elite in the Alpine fastness of Davos.

If you want a gentler – and certainly warmer – introduction to the workings of the WEF, the annual meeting of the Global Future Councils in Dubai is the place for you.

None of that slithering around on icy streets, no waiting for the Klosters shuttle in minus zero temperatures, and no force feeding with cholesterol-laden cheese fondue – the GFC in Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah is as civilised and downright enjoyable as it gets. Interesting, too.

The idea of the GFC is to bring together 600 of the brightest minds in the world – from academia, government, international organisations, business and civil society – “to identify and disseminate transformative ideas with the potential for global impact,” the WEF blurb says.

In other words, a good old fashioned brainstorming – but at global scale.

On an informal level, the GFCs help write the scripts for Davos, by setting the agenda for the January gathering and working out exactly what will be on the minds of the “masters of the universe” as they muse over the Alps from the Davos-bound train, or alight from their private jets in Zurich.

The GFC has all the trappings of a mini-Davos, like grand set-pieces in the plenary hall, break-out events in side areas and, of course, the legendary networking.

But it also has one unique feature. One half of the gigantic Joharah Ballroom, which on another occasion anchors the annual Art Dubai extravaganza, is given over entirely to debate, discourse and discussion of the most important issues facing the world today.

The 30 booths that inhabit this space are each home to a compact gathering of intellectuals – between 10 and 20 – chewing over subjects like “the future of synthetic biology” or “the future of the metaverse”. It is a nerd’s paradise – in the nicest possible way.

The Global Future Councils event takes place in Dubai's Joharah BallroomWam
The Global Future Councils event takes place in Dubai’s Joharah Ballroom

Stroll around, and you can almost hear the buzz from the sheer brain power assembled there.

There was a very lively debate going on in the “future of geopolitics” booth, and some hearty laughter from “the future of complex risks”; but mostly it was earnest conversation and cerebral interaction, accompanied by the squeak of felt tip on whiteboard.

I stopped in on the “future of energy transition” and was refreshingly surprised to hear a middle aged English woman – an NGO-type who would not have looked out of place holding a banner on a “Just Stop Oil” slow march – declare: “Of course the UAE is the best possible place for Cop28. We have to get the oil companies on side if we’re to stop global warming.”

The message is getting some resonance.

Le tout Dubai was in attendance. Mohammed Al Gergawi, UAE minister for cabinet affairs, showed how he has mastered the WEF style with the statement: “Future building is fuelled by the innate human ability to relentlessly pursue curiosity.”

Omar Sultan Al Olama, UAE minister of state for artificial intelligence, told an amusing story about how he was nearly conned by a robot cold-caller who successfully impersonated a close business contact via a video call and then asked him to deposit $80,000 in a foreign bank account.

He declined, but no wonder he is keenly aware of the potential risks of AI. “My rallying cry, everyone, is we need to start. We’re already extremely late.”

Ahmed Galal Ismail, chief executive officer of Majid Al Futtaim, burnished his green credentials with the publication of a comprehensive report in conjunction with the consultancy Bain & Company entitled “Closing the Climate Action Gap” – a pretty sobering account of the vulnerabilities of the Middle East to global warming.

“Mena is more vulnerable than other regions of the world to severe heatwaves, sandstorms and flashfloods,” Ismail warned.

That scenario was difficult to imagine as I waited for my Uber on a balmy evening amid the faux-Arab splendour of the Madinat. And a million miles away from the Davos deep-freeze.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia