At this rate, there’s going to be a very empty hospitality tent, and a heck of a lot of canapés left over in Saudi Arabia. One by one, the bigwigs of the business and financial worlds have been pulling out of the Saudi investment conference, dubbed ‘Davos in the Desert’, which opened today. The reason? They are protesting against the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Of the 150 high-profile speakers lined up for the event, more than 40 have dropped out, and media partners such as Bloomberg, the FT and CNN have withdrawn their support. Those that are still making the trip have come under a lot of pressure to cancel.
You can debate the rights and wrongs of those decisions, whether the Saudis were responsible, and whether pulling out of the conference is the right response. But there is another point that is surely just as important. The proliferation of Davos-style talking shops has already gone too far.
The Saudi jaunt was typical of pious consultancy jargon and PR flannel that characterises these events. It was meant to be about ‘investing in transformation, technology as an opportunity and human potential’. It was always hard to see why a semi-medieval Middle Eastern autocracy reliant on a single fossil fuel was the best place to discuss any of those issues. And it is just as hard to believe the world will be worse off for not hearing what the IMF’s Christine Lagarde or J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon think about them.
The business and financial establishment spends far too much time on politically correct posturing, trying to dress business up in a social purpose, and grand-standing on social issues. The annual winter shindig in the Swiss Alps created a trend for gathering a lots of plutocrats, Fortune 500 bosses, bankers, politicians and think tankers to come up with some feel-good platitudes about climate change or minority rights. As well as the Saudi one, formally known as the ‘Future Investment Forum’, there is the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, and the New Economy Forum, a self-styled rival to Davos set up by the American tycoon Michael Bloomberg, which was originally going to be held next month in Beijing, but then switched to Singapore.
Indeed, the more repressive the regime, the more it seems to feel it necessary to come up with a ‘global economic forum’ of its own. It is a surprise that North Korea hasn’t started one yet, but perhaps it is only a matter of time.
One Davos was almost certainly one too many. But the multiplication of forums for the global elite is getting out of hand. In fact, business has a very clear social purpose, which is to make good products, at fair prices, and to pay suppliers and staff on time. With some of the time saved from skipping yet another conference, perhaps some of the business leaders who aren’t going to Saudi Arabia this week could get on with that instead – and the global economy might actually be in slightly better shape as a result.