Davos Diary: The schmooze of the world

Extreme brainpower meets extraordinary wealth at the annual World Economic Forum. Sean O'Grady reports from the plutocrats' playground

Maybe the best way to understand the World Economic Forum, which has just completed its marathon of chattering in the sweet Swiss resort of Davos, is to think of it as a sort of party political conference for international capitalism. Around 2,500 leaders in business, finance, politics, economics and the media gather to debate the state of the world. There are formal sessions – panel discussions and speeches, plus working lunches and dinners. There are also informal chats over coffee, secretive "bilaterals" where serious deals are broached – and, to be honest, some pretty hard, extravagant partying.

Someone told me that two-thirds of the world's wealth is concentrated for a few days in this tiny corner of the Alps, and I would guess something of the same proportion of the planet's brainpower too; half a dozen Nobel prize winners, a few score university professors; countless Herr Doctors and a sprinkling of poetic stardust and royalty (if you like that sort of thing). They've cut down on the Hollywood contingent because it was turning the place into a joke.

Bill Gates, Condi Rice, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger, Queen Rania of Jordan, Rupert Murdoch, Bono, Emma Thompson, prime ministers from France to Singapore, the new breed of Indian and Chinese billionaire entrepreneurs and as many bank chairmen as you could possibly ever wish to encounter. At Davos you can see and hear them all, and even ask them the odd question.

For a journalist that is quite an attractive package, but it takes a few days to realise that, actually, few truly startling stories emerge from the WEF: strict off-the-record rules and a certain quasi-academic atmosphere see to that. Making news is not what the participants are here for. True, some symbolic moments in the Middle East peace process, in the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and in the campaign against poverty in the developing world have taken place in Davos. But most of the effort is directed towards learning, schmoozing and networking. It can be a bewildering place to be; the sheer scale of it now makes getting a grip on what's going on a little tricky.

When the WEF was started in 1971, by the German-born economist Klaus Schwab, it was a pretty small, low-key, even secretive, affair; 300 or so leaders in their fields taking a week or two out in Switzerland for some skiing and gentle massaging of their grey matter. Dr Schwab is still in charge but his little get-together has turned into a huge media circus, with a lot of ego massaging. It's also a lot more hierarchical; the badge you have denotes your status: White badges allow "participants" into the off-the-record sessions and dinners; a gold badge confines you to the larger, more public sessions such as the opening number by Condi Rice, and is mostly for reporters. Blue badges are for staff. Participants' spouses get slightly different white badges. Then there are the "Hotel" badges, which mean you can't get into the conference centre at all, but can go skiing and get drunk at the parties.

It isn't that flat an organisation: you rarely see the billionaires and presidents queuing for a buffet lunch and the chances of bumping into Bill Gates in the loo are nil: so you get close to the masters of the universe – but not that close.

Corporate sponsorship and a fee of about £2,000 per (egg) head pays for it all and the Schwab Foundation. How much Dr Schwab is worth is an occasional topic of lively conversation.

Watching an economic crisis unfold through the prism of Davos was a novel experience; it is not every day you get the chance to gain a little extra insight into the day's events from a Nobel prize winner in economics. For that at least it was worth falling over (twice) on the black ice that covers the Davosian pavements.


Zurich airport, 11am. On Swiss soil and when I stroll over to the adjacent railway station (just think of saying that about Heathrow for a moment), to buy my ticket I soon discover the correct way to pronounce "Davos". It does not, as I had assumed, rhyme with the Dr Who baddy Davros. Rather the second syllable is a bit slurred, so it sounds like "divorce". In fact if you want to show yourself to be truly an insider, just call it Divorce. For those without access to private jet or helicopter, Divorce is a difficult place to get to. It means a three-hour train journey with two changes, the last leg being taken on an Alpine branch line. As I wind my way up the mountains it gets less green and more white and chilly: text messages about another bad day on the stock markets – the worst since the aftermath of 9/11 – give me plenty to contemplate. It's due to fears of recession and misery in the US, apparently, and makes an odd juxtaposition with the prosperous, jolly kitsch chalets en route to Hotel Hermann.


What to wear?

Davos has got two climates. Outdoors, it's the usual Alpine mix of sunshine and snow. On the inside, inside the vast Conference Hall purpose built for the summit, and the partying hotels, the micro-climate is like Barbados. If you tog yourself out in Full Metal Puffa Jacket and Moon Boots you risk heat exhaustion during a panel session on Sovereign Wealth Funds; if you wear a suit, coat and normal shoes you could go down with hypothermia waiting for a shuttle bus to your hotel.


The opening address by Condi Rice, which for some reason comes at the end rather than the start of the day, is introduced by Klaus Schwab. He is almost a caricature of himself in his lavish compliments to the American Secretary of State. With his deep, slow Germanic accent and a slightly forbidding bald visage, Dr Schwab looks and sounds like a cross between Dr Strangelove and Dr No. When he pops up on the media centre TV he causes a certain amount of amusement; especially when he is interrupted by a puppet show.

Dinner with three Indian ministers and some of their go-ahead business community; thence to the "Nobel Nightcap" featuring five winners from economics, medicine and peace. Shimon Peres speaks movingly about hope. In the shuttle bus back to the hotel Arthur Mutambara of the MDC, the opposition party in Zimbabwe, explains to me how his country's economy survives.


Al Gore and Bono for breakfast; becoming quite a double act. Stelios for elevenses and he reveals he doesn't want to buy Northern Rock.

Sometimes you have to admit your own ignorance. Before I saw his name on the programme, I didn't know who François Fillon was. You neither? Well he's the French Prime Minister, mini-me to Sarkozy's presidential maxi-me. His speech, "France on the Move", is notable for its pledge to freeze French public spending for five years. M. Fillon says he doesn't want France to be left behind as a quaint museum piece, which is how British politicians used to talk a few decades ago. His talk of a dynamic, enterprise economy is Blairite, almost Thatcherite. Still, some things don't change: he is by far the most sharply suited politician around (bon); but the Intervention du Premier Minister is given in French, as is the press release (mal). There are no questions and not a mention of the $7.2bn farce at Société Gé*érale. Must be a terrible blow to Gallic pride; at least it cheers up the Anglophones. The evening's highlights are the AccelorMittal "Speak Easy" and the McKinsey & Co Jazz Funk band. The chief executive of the world's largest private equity house, Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone, has taken his tie off and is gyrating faster than the Nasdaq on a bad day. Quite a sight. At dinner I find myself in the company of the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, and Ken Livingstone. It seems they've banned public signage in English in favour of French in Quebec.


An awful lot of Gordon Brown today, who seems to have fallen for Queen Rania of Jordan, and I can't blame him. Bill Gates announces more help for Africa but declines my offer of a chat.

By now I have realised that there is a strong inverse relationship between the urgency with which the WEF staff deliver press releases and the newsworthiness of the contents. The revelation that "Switzerland Tops 2008 Environmental Scorecard at World Economic Forum" is rushed into my hands with the sort of zeal that should really be reserved for events such as the birth of Jesus Christ. Sadly, there is no space for the Swiss breakthrough in tonight's edition. The stock markets have recovered, the sun has come out and three nights of emergency infusions of liquidity (champagne/cocktails/beer) seem to have cheered the participants.

Dinner is a biofuels-themed affair, enlivened by a dispute with the Brazilians about the fate of their rainforest. Their message is that if we want them to leave it alone we'll have to pay 'em. Bosses of BP, Volvo and Unilever give the commercial angle, the director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, Jacques Diouf of Senegal, speaks for Africa, and the UK Government's scientific adviser and professors from Yale and Harvard are the experts. See what I mean about brainpower?

The Google Party at the Hotel Belvedere is lively; but I prefer the lower-key Booz Allen do, and a chat with Steve Forbes, the nicest billionaire I've ever met. Rounded off with the traditional raucous boozing and singing session at the Hotel Europe's piano bar. This is where you get to see plutocrats being naughty.


"What about the Aegean?" The giant TV screen in the press room is carrying coverage of the "Turkey's Challenges" session, starring Ali Babacan, the Turkish Foreign Minister. You can't turn the volume down and I find myself being force fed a crash course in international relations in the eastern Mediterranean. I'm disturbed by quite how much people who work in foreign affairs think-tanks are in love with themselves. Some stray words from Peter Mandelson on the trade talks give us a little story. Fondue dinner for the press, black tie soiree and more booze.


Monday in reverse. I arrive in London sorry to leave Davos.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Newly Qualified Teachers

£90 - £115 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: We are currently looking fo...

Year 3/4 Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Job Share Year 3/4 Teacher...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments