“Just a fug of smug”, said one friend when he heard that I was being dispatched by my organisation to the Davos World Economic Forum in 2015. I guessed he was slightly jealous. From the outside, Davos seemed like an amazing chance to see and perhaps even dine at the top table of global geopolitics, business, arts and glamour.
Things looked different when I actually stepped out of the train onto a midnight station platform high in the Swiss mountains. I hadn’t found a room anywhere near my budget in Davos itself (although I was offered half a villa for 13,500 euros for the week). I only learned later that WEF veterans book months in advance. Here in Klosters, half an hour away from Davos, my bunk bed in a hostel was going to cost $ 250 a night. I scrambled up an icy road in a freezing gloom and briefly got lost in a moonscape of snow and dark wood-fronted houses. Right then, I’d have been happy with a fug of anything.
The Limits of One Per Cent
I hoped the frozen-out feeling wouldn’t last. I had experienced the all-together-under-one-five-star-hotel-roof embrace of WEF events in Istanbul and Central Asia in the past, in my guise as a discussion-leading expert on Turkey and its hinterland. Back then, I had felt as if I too was included in WEF Founder Klaus Schwab’s hypnotically expansive “we”.
This time I hadn’t been invited. I was a late addition as a folder-carrier for International Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno. For non-paying NGOs like ours, however noble, Davos just gives one entry ticket to the group’s president and partner. Even paying corporations struggle for more than a pair of tickets. That’s the magic of the Davos inner circle: it really is very exclusive.
The next morning, the weather cleared and my spirits revived. For all its complicated bunks and cupboard-sized showers down the hall, my hostel was a cosy gem. My train from Klosters to Davos turned out to be included in the room price. The old line looped between soaring mountains and fir forests weighed down with snow.
Still, I had only half an eye on Switzerland’s beauties. The carriage felt like the school train to boarding school, with newbies like me warily checking out confident old-timers. They didn’t look out of the picture windows much, swiping through their electronic calendar schedules, doubtless overflowing with Class A meetings.
Before long, the tracks skirted round a half-frozen lake: Davos could be glimpsed beyond the opposite shore. Suddenly, I had an unexpected first decision to take: does the newcomer alight immediately in Davos Dorf, or proceed to Davos Platz?
I chose Davos Platz. Wrong. Hours of false starts later, I found myself back at Davos Dorf station, in an icy car park front of two portacabins overflowing with reporters, support staff, caterers and drivers. Badges, it turned out, are handed out according to a rigid caste system. In addition to the 2,500 full participants, each year the WEF organisers have to cope with more than 5,000 hangers-on like me.
Badges of Rank
Since everyone was muffled up to the gills, it felt like a ski lift queue without the breathing space afforded by skis. Ironically, opposite us was a real Swiss ski lift, nearly free of skiers because the WEF had crowded out normal holiday makers. And WEF attendees had only eyes for each other, not the smooth slopes shimmering against a blue sky high above. After an hour more waiting, phone calls to headquarters, and messages to and fro, I won my badge.
It was a nice, satisfying, high-quality name tag that made me feel I’d been granted entry into a club. Now that it hung from my neck, people started looking at me as if I had potential. Some grandees might look on over my shoulder after they clocked my first-rung-of-the-ladder colour code, but not all of them. Davos honoured its traditional and probably illusionary reputation of grandly egalitarian etiquette surprisingly often. Still, there were many subtle signals of rank, like curious crampons fixed on black city shoes to crunch across the ice: arrival gifts from the WEF, bestowed upon full participants only.
As a non-participant I could not attend any of the main WEF meetings in the main Congress Centre. But I could do what I was expected to do: meet people connected with my non-profit organisation, be they reporters wanting to interview our president, representatives of governments, donors actual and possible, our partners and our well-wishers. Back offices spend weeks lining up meetings for hardened Davos-goers. “It’s like speed dating,” a veteran Europe media commentator told me. “You wouldn’t believe how it opens the door to meetings afterwards when you can tell the secretary: ‘say that we met at Davos’.”
My calendar began to fill up with new encounters. There was one problem, however: I had to find somewhere to meet them. For the good hotel cafes and bars, I had to have another badge to secure me access; one hotel seemed to be auctioning off places on its lobby sofas. Even inside the Congress Centre itself, participants told me that tiny rooms were available just 15 minutes at a time, with much banging on the door if you over-stayed.
A university student’s instinct for gate-crashing parties was clearly an essential survival skill. After getting our president filmed for the social media fad of 2015 – Vine, the six-second soundbite – an old acquaintance took pity on me and gave me a pass to his organisation’s lounge. (Thank you, Bank of America). This meant that I also had somewhere warm and friendly to go in-between meetings, rather than having to trudge among the many surprisingly unappealing concrete buildings in Davos’s freezing cold streets.
Highlighted on my calendar was a sliding scale of parties I might be able to attend outside the Congress Centre, usually given by Crisis Group’s past, current or possible future benefactors. My lowly status either got me denied, accepted, or told that “Susie will let you in at midnight”. Twinkling chat followed bright-eyed encounter, often, I suspected, with people who were just as much at a loose end as me.
I was made welcome at the Kenya night. I was invited to a Mongolian party. I watched as the understated Canadians staged easily the most impressive reception of all. I would have given them first prize in all WEF categories of good governance and economic prospects. Except that, just as Ottawa’s chief dignitary was about to reach the swelling “invest now” climax of his speech, the lady next to him fainted and thumped to the ballroom floor like a felled Douglas fir. The minister just kept on going, sounding more and more wooden by the second. When shaken by a nearby misfortune, even in Davos, one should definitely be empathetically stirred.
To relax, I sipped cosy drinks with a supporter in the bar of the Berghotel Schatzalp. Built in 1900, the former sanatorium inspired Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and could easily have been the model for the film The Grand Budapest Hotel, complete with its plug-and-cable phone exchanges, peeling paint, 19th century washbasins and its own funicular railway. Things began to feel like fun.
I jotted down snippets ofDavosian conversation. Something in the mountain air inspired people to breath-taking metaphors:
“The Internet is like the rain forest. You can’t control it. But you can damage or destroy it”, opined a digital magnate from Brazil.
“I’ve met the worst of humankind. I’m used to shaking hands with thugs,” confided a former UN director.
“Geopolitical ‘black swans’ are inevitable. Surprises have got to happen. They follow the same rules that apply to celebrities in Hollywood”, said a comfortable dignitary.
There was not much time for niceties to make an impression. “My Dad was director of Iranian intelligence”, one woman blurted out to her new counterpart from the chair next to me in the Bank of America lounge. “You know, like the KGB”.
“All governments want a back door [to secret encryption programs] to stop criminals, to pursue investigations. But the path to hell is through back doors”, said one wise expert, who had clearly rarely needed one.
My favourite overheard conversation, though, was an angry alpha male American business tycoon berating his harassed PA: “I don’t want to meet just anyone who has time to meet me! Anyone who says they don’t have time, that’s the one you want”.
A Parallel Universe
Davos’s sense of otherworldliness extended to my own area of expertise, Turkey. Its Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was going to address investors at a hotel outside the hallowed Congress Centre. No badge was needed, so I turned up at the appointed 7am to see how this indefatigable optimist would distract his audience from an increasingly cloudy outlook for his country. Twenty tables for eight were weighed down with Swiss plenty. Two or three were half-filled. I introduced myself at one and sat down.
Soon the nearly empty room and my predictions of stormy weather ahead for Turkey began to disturb the lean fund manager sitting next to me. He had boasted of making big profits in the 2000s with his first Turkey investment fund, and was mid-way through another, clearly less propitious cycle. “You’re talking to the wrong people,” he snorted. “You should change the people you talk to.”
If he’d been eavesdropping on the table next door, like I was, he’d have been even more annoyed. An American was telling off the chief of the Istanbul Stock Exchange about the many things he thought Turkey’s government should be doing better.
Meanwhile, Davutoğlu was getting very late. One of the only potential new investors, a well-padded American at my table, got up and left. And a lady from a giant Zurich reinsurance company. Eventually, so did the fund manager too.
Finally, an hour and a half after the scheduled starting time, Davutoğlu appeared. His entourage was surprisingly small, three ministers and a dozen flunkies; a Turkish friend on the delegation had already told me of the trouble they had getting badges. By that time,the audience of interested outsiders was, as far as I could see, basically just me.
No matter: two huge studio TV cameras were on hand to beam Davutoğlu’s buoyant speech about the limitless possibilities of investment in Turkey, live to television viewers back home. He’d been drinking in plenty of the Davos spirit: he saw “stability and order” in the country’s ever-heavier authoritarianism. He talked of a “dynamic Mediterranean spirit”, a concept that would have astonished my Turkish friends, for whom the word ‘Mediterranean’ conjures up lazy hedonism. In another flourish, he reminded his tiny audience that Napoleon had thought “Istanbul should be the capital of a world state”.
Then, wearing the same indelible smile that rarely left his lips, he shook some hands and headed off for his next date, pursued by an Indian businessman who was imploring him to accept an invitation to attend his grandchild’s wedding.
I had nowhere to go and stayed for the discussion, in which the panel nearly outnumbered the guest audience, although the TV cameras kept transmitting. Ali Babacan, Turkey’s upright minister of the economy, did a creditable job in talking up Turkey’s place on a global crossroads. Still, I knew that he knew that Istanbul’s role as a regional hub is hardly a novelty: I myself warmed up this old chestnut for the front page of the Wall Street Journal back in 1997, and obviously Napoleon, not to mention the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, had heard about it too.
Then came a real shock: I recognised the American who had criticised Ankara’s rulers at the table next to me on the panel, and he was now blowing big Davos bubbles. “What you are attempting to do,” he said in the midst of a river of glowing endorsements of Turkey’s economic prospects, “is breathtaking”. No wonder Turkey loves Davos, and invests in it to polish its image every year.
It would be unfair, however, to present Davos as an empty echo chamber. During one lonely interlude in the Bank of America lounge, I listened in on a scientist’s exhilarating discussion of her West African field work on Ebola with an apparent funder. The official participants’ agenda in the Congress Hall was full of fascinating and inspiring-looking lectures on new ideas for helping the blind, artificial intelligence or aid to developing countries.
At a time when civil war was tipping the Syrians further into the abyss, an activist team made a cogent and moving plea for attention and support for Syria’s “white helmet” paramedics. But of all the hundreds of official participants, just a sobering handful made it to the “Saving Syria Roundtable” at the Strozzi’s & Spenglers eatery on Davos Platz’s Promenade.
Far more energy was consumed in a frenetic rush to see everyone and be at the most fashionable parties. I marvelled at servings of Krug champagne and slaked my curiosity about $ 200 bottles of wine, surprised at how much like a good regular bottle they tasted, but enchanted to find that the person chatting to me as he poured another glass had actually produced it. There seemed no limit to the star quality of people who one might bump into, from George Soros rallying his supporters over dinner, to speakers like Kofi Annan, Helen Clark, Katie Couric, Peter Gabriel and Bill Gates.
The convening power of Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum is formidable indeed, even if my high-level Davos networking mostly happened in the back of shared luxury minivans, which ferry WEF denizens from snowbound pavements to snug firesides to concrete conference halls. Everyone who boards these shuttle buses feels morally obliged to chat and exchange cards, including the CEOs of globe-straddling corporations. But chance meetings clearly aren’t everything. Barely five of the one hundred or so people I must have met turned out to need to speak to me again, or I to them.
Finally, after six days of exhausting rush, the carnival-like corporate stands started to pack up their wares. It was Saturday afternoon. I called it a day and asked the way to the Davos ice rink. It is the size of a football pitch and smooth as glass, and it gave me one of my most exhilarating hours in the town, along with the next morning in Klosters, where I managed a couple of hours cross-country skiing past antique wooden farms and horse-drawn sleighs making their way through pristine Swiss mountain countryside.
I doubt I’ll volunteer for Davos any time soon, even if I enjoyed the sheer intensity of it all. I’d love to go again as a participant though, perhaps when I can have a partners’ ticket to all the interesting lectures when my wife achieves her ambition to be a globally famous healer of the spiritual energy of corporations. And, of course, it would be nice to have one more go at tobogganing crazily down the long, unlit, icy mountain road from the extraordinary Berghotel Schatzalp.