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Davos mixes oil and water

About half the 2,340 participants expected in Davos are business chiefs, just 15% of them women.

india Updated: Jan 24, 2006 15:35 IST

Over the coming week, a small corner of the Swiss Alps will become a businessman's playground as more than 1,000 executives buttonhole rivals and political leaders on global challenges and deals, in between runs down ski slopes for the fittest.

The annual, clubbish, meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) regularly draws a sizeable chunk of the world's corporate and political elite to the eastern Swiss resort of Davos.

After last year's foray into both poverty and climate change with Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, Brazil's Lula or President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, the organisers readily admit that the 2006 event has seen some political downsizing.

"Clearly one year on our minds are in a different place," said WEF managing director Ged Davis, announcing an economic bias to the five-day meeting starting on Wednesday.

This year's array of global concerns range from the growing weight of China and India, to fears of an oil and energy crisis or the strain on global water supplies.

Heads of state and government beyond freshly-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be thin on the ground and the ministerial representation is dominated by finance and trade specialists.

About half the 2,340 participants expected in Davos are business chiefs -- just 15 percent of them women -- including the heads of three-quarters of the top 100 ranked companies.

"The World Economic Forum tries to keep away from issues that are too politicised," Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman responded after being asked about the potential for talks on Iran.

"For me the key issue is the shift of the centre of gravity from the west to the east, the rise of China and India not as a threat, but as an opportunity," he told journalists.

Chinese Vice Premier and central economic planning chief Zeng Peiyan, and the governor of China's central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan, who holds the key to the yuan's exchange rate, are due be accompanied by a showcase business delegation.

India's business community is also flocking to the Alps, along with commerce and industry minister Kamal Nath, who is due to take part in a trade meeting on the sidelines of the forum.

The WEF's mainly western, 20,000 dollar-a-year fee paying members highlighted the two Asian powers as areas of "immense" opportunity, but also signalled anxiety about low cost competition, Davis said.

An internal survey found that energy related topics came top of their list of concerns.

"What is on the top of the agenda this year is energy security. Second climate change regulation and its impact on markets, third mid- to long-term supply uncertainties... and fourth new forms of terrorism," said energy specialist Christophe Frey.

The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries incoming president, Edmund Daukoru of Nigeria, last year's OPEC president and Kuwaiti energy minister Sheikh Ahmad Fahd al-Sabah are expected to join oil and gas industry chiefs in Davos.

The "energy summit" events include a private session sounding out the response of industry chiefs, senior officials and analysts to a potential oil crisis.

The scenario involves simultaneous attacks on chokepoints in global energy supply -- thought to be ports, shipping routes, pipelines and refineries -- that "cause havoc on energy markets" and send prices above 120 dollars a barrel for weeks.

"There's value in holding some sessions in private so that people speak their minds," Frey noted, declining to give details on how the scenario was put together.

Despite the media frenzy around Davos, corporate leaders are attracted by the opportunity for discrete one-on-one meetings in and around the resort.

The Swiss-based food giant Nestle will send four senior execuitives to Davos.

"It's very valuable," company spokesman Robin Tickle explained. "It's an opportunity to engage in discussions on economic topics, wider societal issues and obviously also an opportunity to pursue a variety of business contacts."

"I wouldn't want to go into details. The variety of contacts is wide, it is very time-efficient," he added.

Nestle chief executive and chairman Peter Brabeck, who is also one of the business chairs guiding this year's debates, will front several meetings about access to water.

"No doubt one of the most pressing problems, and one that is significantly underestimated these days, is the unsustainable growth of freshwater withdrawal," Brabeck said on the WEF's website, targeting unsustainable farming practices in particular.

Nestle is one of the world's largest commercial suppliers of bottled water, with more than 8.0 billion Swiss francs (5.0 billion euros, 7.8 billion dollars) in sales in 130 countries.


First Published: Jan 24, 2006 15:35 IST