Davos on Tour in Istanbul

June 8, 2012

The arrival of the World Economic Forum in Istanbul this week was overshadowed in the Turkish media by the arrival of Madonna and her entourage, although there was a symmetry in events—massive security, caravans of expensive cars with tinted windows, snarled traffic and cab drivers cursing them all. Tagging behind the Material Girl was her twenty-four-year-old lover, Brahim Zaibat; tagging behind Turkey’s mercurial prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. In both cases, the pair looked every inch the happy couple.

In 2009, Erdogan stalked out of Davos in a rage—“For me Davos is no more. I will not come to Davos ever again,” he said after accusing the moderator of giving him less time to speak than the Israeli president. But he never said he wouldn’t return to the World Economic Forum per se, just to Davos. If the mountain were to come to Mohammed, however, that would be fine. The forum usually holds its Middle East summit in Egypt, Jordan or Morocco, but we all know what’s happening there, so persuading the delegates to come to Istanbul instead—glorious as always in the springtime—was perhaps not a hard sell.

With the U.S. economy in the tank, the euro zone collapsing and the repercussions of the Arab Spring rumbling ominously through neighboring regions, Erdogan took advantage of his keynote address to reflect upon the most pressing of the world’s economic problems: Palestine. He then accused the developed nations of miserliness: the large economies of the world, he charged, were failing to help the poor ones. Not Turkey, though. “Ten years ago we used to be a country that took, rather than gave. Now we are feeling the joy of giving to other countries as well.”

Erdogan sentimentally concluded in the we-are-the-world spirit: the world, he said, was yearning for love. What’s more—and this is the notable part—“There should be important steps taken to achieve this love.” (Given that this is Erdogan we’re talking about, one may expect him to announce a bill to criminalize lovelessness.)

Initial theatrics aside, it was an ambitious forum. Treating Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East—the largest geographical area the WEF has to date pulled together—the meeting was held with the support of the Turkish government and prominent Turkish business figures. You get what you pay for, so the overarching theme was Turkey and its role in “Bridging Regions in Transformation.”

Turkey’s critical geographic location seemed to be important news to many of the conference goers, although I’m not sure why; even a cursory glance at the in-flight magazine would show that indeed, Turkey is in the middle of everything. But the “bridging” theme seemed to have surfaced from conference notes of yesteryear; as everyone who lives here knows, Turkey’s former foreign policy—“zero problems with its neighbors”—has been recast as “zero neighbors without problems.” Turkey is now barely on speaking terms with its neighbors, although its leadership is hardly to be faulted for this: Turkey does have neighbors from hell.

Speed Dating

The subthemes of the conference were the usual pabulum one finds at conferences: “Harnessing technology and social change;” “Rising to the growth and employment challenge;” “Shaping the new governance landscape” and the like. But that’s not really the point of these events. The point, as many were keen to tell me, is the networking, especially with the people who award government contracts and tenders. To that end, Tunisian interim prime minister Hamadi Jebali was in attendance, along with heads of state and government from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Jordan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Ukraine, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Republic of Tatarstan. Face time with them is what it’s all about—and unsurprisingly, panels concerning energy pipelines connecting the larger region to Europe were of particular interest.

Oddly, the Egyptians, whom we are often told have the most to learn from Turkey’s model, were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they were overscheduled. Jordanian prime minister Fayez Tarawneh was there, however, and assured the audience that there was nothing to worry about in Jordan, thanks to its “inclusive and tolerant existing political sphere”—this despite the “regional upheavals, armed conflicts, increase in energy prices, population movements, and most recently the disruption of Egyptian gas supply to Jordan.”

It was hardly surprising that security at the conference was tight. Oddly, though, I could walk freely—and without any kind of identification—into the “networking area,” where all of the most tempting terrorist targets were busy networking their brains out.

Not networking at all was Nabil Aburdeineh, Abbas’s political adviser and spokesman. I asked if I could sit at his table. I didn’t realize who he was. He shrugged and said “sure.” When he introduced himself, I said that he must be pleased that Abbas had received star billing, speaking directly after Erdogan. He shrugged again. “Usually we don’t go anywhere unless we’re number one on the stage.”

“Really?” I said. “Number one?”

“We’re Palestine. We’re not Costa Rica.”

Unprompted, he explained that the Palestine case was the crux of all problems in the Middle East. Apparently, Erdogan and Turkish president Abdullah Gul—with whom the delegation had just conferred—were in complete agreement. Were you sure, I asked, that they weren’t just telling you what you wanted to hear? After all, politicians have a habit of doing that. I pointed out that Hillary Clinton had recently assured the Swedes that the United States had no more treasured friend than Sweden. No, no, he insisted. “They both said that Palestine was the number-one case in the area. They support us—financially, politically, in the UN.”

I decided to change the subject. What did he think of the conference, I asked? What had he learned?

He looked at me blankly, then told me that he hadn’t attended a single session. I looked puzzled, and he hastened to assure me that other members of the delegation had attended a few sessions—the manager of the Palestinian Investment Fund was there. “Why isn’t there any tourism in Palestine?” he asked. “Why doesn’t anyone want to visit? Because of the Occupation!”

I put it to him that recent events, for example in Libya and Syria, might suggest that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was perhaps not quite as central to the region’s economic problems as some had assumed.

Not at all, he replied serenely. It was all because of Israel. All of these regimes, he said, had to finance massive militaries to deal with the Israeli problem, which was why they were brutal and impoverished. He added that I had to understand that this region was Arab and Muslim. He had spent time in America, he told me. Americans couldn’t understand the role of religion in the Middle East.

I said that not all Palestinians were Muslims.

“I know. I’m a Christian.”

Well, what do you say to that?

Macro-consensus Building

I excused myself to “network” with Dino Varkey and Andrew Short, two friendly businessmen from the Dubai-based Gems Education—a “global growth company.” It was globally growthful especially, Varkey explained, in a recession, because if you can’t get a job, you can always go to school. They couldn’t afford to go to the “real” Davos, but they came to a lot of regional forums like this one. What did they get out of it? Dino said face time with important people was the main thing. He’d spoken to Turkish deputy prime minister Ali Babacan. If ever in the future he called him, Babacan might remember who he was. You wouldn’t get face time with Turkish leaders in forums held in Egypt and Jordan, where “we always talk about the same things”—to wit, Israel and Palestine.

Since they were in the private-education business, I assumed that at some point they’d had the chance to discuss the potential barriers to entry into Turkey’s private-education market. I asked Varkey whether he’d learned anything about the issues Turkey confronts in this area. What did he think about the controversial new 4+4+4 plan for twelve years of compulsory education? Did he expect stiff competition from Gulen movement schools? He looked at me with bewilderment: neither of these terms meant anything to him.

It wasn’t really about that, he explained. It was just about meeting the key politicians to “begin the discussion.” The forum, he added, was about “macro-consensus building.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but he seemed to feel it was worth the price of admission—along with access to the networking lounge (which, I should point out, I accessed for free).

What had been the main lesson of the forum? “Well,” Varkey said, “the hosts clearly wanted to deliver a message about the Turkish economy and its development, and they delivered the right messages, absolutely. It served to increase our interest in wanting to invest in the country.” They seemed to have been persuaded that Turkey is some kind of foreign-investment Valhalla, and admittedly Turkey does look great from the Bosphorus Swisotel on a lovely spring day, especially if you’re used to going to these things in Egypt. Short, his partner, added that “Our side of the business is around engagement with governments.” I asked whether they had had a chance to attend any of the panels on corruption, but they didn’t get the joke.

Later I met Orlando Ashford of Mercer Consulting, which specializes in “talent mobility.” He thrust a massive report into my hands. Very glossy. Lots of phrases like “stakeholder” and “leveraging ‘level 4’ cooperation.” Graphs titled “Matrix of talent mobility good practices by foundational issue addressed.” I asked him what drew him to a forum like this. (Participants pay CHF 5,500 [$5,734] just to sign up, and this doesn’t include travel and expenses.) He was certain the investment was worthwhile, worth every penny, worth it, in fact, for all of the seven members of his company who had flown here with him. Why, I asked? Why not hold the whole thing on the Internet?

“Well, the forum focus is on finance, politics, governance—but at the core it’s still about people. You just can’t do this online.”

I said that I supposed it was true that I would never have met or spoken to him online.

“Exactly,” he said with satisfaction. Still, in the age of Skype, it does seem odd to spend all this money on a gathering that in total easily cost the participants and the government enough money to vaccinate an entire developing nation against measles. But, Orlando explained, “networking is what’s most valuable. There’s still something about spending time human-to-human.”

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