UPDATED: Davos 2019 loses its biggest drawcard, Trump cancels

By Alec Hogg*

A fortnight hence, the 48th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum will be in full swing. But unlike last year, the “Donald Trump Show” has just lost its star attraction. After trumpeting his excitement at making a return visit, last night (Thursday 10th Jan) Trump announced that he has cancelled – seems the pressure was just too much over his proposed Border Wall and the partial shutdown of the Federal Government (where 380,000 employees have been sent home on unpaid leave and as least as many are having to work without pay).

Given the reception he received in January 2018, it was hardly surprising Trump found the event irresistible. Burt even he has limits when attacked on too many fronts. So the WEF loses out as the US president fights an escalating war against the Democrats and an hopefully receding one on the trade front with China. Adding to the pressure, though, was yesterday’s disclosure that his long-time personal lawyer and former confidante Michael Cohen will testify before Congress next month. Cohen has turned state witness in a criminal charge likely to be brought against Trump over hush money paid to former lovers at a critical stage of the 2016 presidential election.

Absence of The Donald removes the unprecedented scenes we witnessed last year where the moment critique was superbly recorded by Capetonian lensman Greg Beadle with his camera. WEF founder Klaus Schwab, to Trump’s left, appears bemused at the starstruck reaction of Davos regulars, while a grinning Hilde Schwab was clearly delighted at the stir caused by the event’s drawcard.

Not sure how Greg is going to follow that, but I’m excited to once more be sharing his daily “Best of…” pics throughout the event.

Trump selects ambassador for South Africa
Donald J. Trump President of the United States of America Office of the President of the
United States USA arrives at the Annual Meeting 2018 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 25, 2018. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Greg Beadle

Last year Trump’s decision to attend, the first by a sitting US president since Bill Clinton in 2000,  came late, with Forum staffers unsure until the last minute whether the flotilla of US Air Force helicopters would descend on the Swiss ski resort.

They had planned an extravaganza of this year, but with the president’s cancellation it’s unlikely the Swiss resort will get to host all of the previously confirmed heavyweights in the cabinet, from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo through to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and chief trade war negotiator Robert Lighthizer. Having so many big American political cannons simultaneously in Davos would have been unprecedented

Trump’s cancellation will switch Davos attendees’ attention to Wang Qishan, deputy Chinese premier, who is confirmed with a keynote also planned. We’d expect some good news on this front as the mood between leaders of the world’s two biggest economies has improved a lot lately. Headlined by apparently successful trade negotiations in Beijing this week – as the tweeter-in-chief shared shared with us yesterday.

Although the WEF staff go to great lengths to create a stimulating official agenda – this year around the imaginative theme of Globalisation 4.0 – most of the really good stuff happens outside the pre-planned schedule.

That’s because this place delivers a unique opportunity for the rich and powerful to meet their peers in a relaxed environment. They swap notes and soon find themselves better informed about what’s really going on – and what’s coming during the next 12 months.

I’ll be reporting back on my Davos adventure on my traditional SA roadshow in the early part of February, and given my new domicile, this year have added London to the schedule. So if you’re in the UK capital on January 29th, please come along – would love to see you (for info on tickets click here).

Back to the event itself, experience has taught me the greatest insights come as the week matures and these ultimate global insiders start sharing what they’ve picked up.

Most value is gleaned by mixing widely and listening closely. Although there are mavericks aplenty in Davos, opinions among those who wield the power tend to converge over the five days, leaving us with a good idea of what the coming 12 months will hold.

Apart from attention on the Chinese delegation, there is now sure to be even greater focus on Trump’s kindred spirits and presidential counterparts, Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu and Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro.

Netanyahu, who faces a critical election in April, is well remembered for causing total gridlock to the already chaotic Davos traffic when insisting one day to walk (surrounded by dozens of heavily armed beefcakes ) the couple miles from his hotel to the Congress Centre.

On the upside, there won’t be a repeat of that disruptive observance of his Sabbath this year as the event has since been truncated to end on the Friday evening.

On the downside, by just being there, the Israeli president significantly ups the already tight security ante. Presumably the Swiss will be adding to the usual 5,000 soldiers who form a ring of steel in the mountains around Europe’s highest town.

This is Brazil’s newly elected president Bolsonaro’s first Davos.

Dubbed the “Tropical Trump”,  he’s probably the most disappointed of any global leader that Trump won’t be in Davos. It was being lined up as an opportunity for the two like minded conservatives to eyeball each other. Judging by their public expressions of affection, when they do meet world politics’ most closely watched Bromance could be ratcheted up a notch.

Bolsonaro is bringing his top team. In his instance, led by Brazil’s economics super minister Paulo Guedes, a free marketer in the Milton Friedman tradition, who shares Chicago University with the academic icon.

Other Brazilian brass in attendance are the lead prosecutor in the Operation Car Wash investigation and now officially the nation’s anti corruption tsar, Sergio Moro, and outspoken foreign minister Ernesto Araujo.

With Trump now off the agenda, the Southern African leaders who were is such demand last year may well get another look in this time around. Especially considering both Emmerson Mnangagwa and Cyril Ramaphosa arrived in Davos last year as presidents-in-waiting and return as actual incumbents.

Zimbabwe’s Mnangagwa was a little overwhelmed by all the attention in 2018, so has quickly discovered flowery talk is cheap, but only delivery matters when you’re in the Swiss Alps in January. He is sure to struggle for another crack at the big money men. And after last year’s elevated promises, with little concrete progress in the past year Mnangagwa is less of a drawcard.

South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, too, is likely to discover the competition for attention will be a tougher now that some new belles have arrived at the Davos ball. Nevertheless, the country’s new president is taking the event more seriously than any predecessor, bringing along all of his leading cabinet allies, doubtless with instructions to get to work on potential investors.

The SA contingent this year includes those heading the economy portfolios with all of Tito Mboweni, Pravin Gordhan, Jeff Radebe, Ebrahim Patel and Rob Davies confirmed. Also there this year are relative newcomers, Lindiwe Sisulu (International Affairs) and Aaron Motsoaledi (Health). The mostly Davos-experienced lineup bodes well for the nation.

With former finmin Trevor Manuel around to lend support (accompanying his wife Absa CEO Maria Ramos) SA has a veritable dream team this year compared with the sorry lot which represented the country in Davos during the Zuma era. Think blundering JZ himself, woeful Mildred Oliphant or, heaven help us, Mosebenzi Zwane.

Ramos, who was a previous co-chair of the WEF annual meeting, is among the usually strong  contingent of well know business leaders. Among them the Sasol joint CEOs, with whom I’ve already arranged our annual interview. Lots more like that for you to look forward to.

On a global scale, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella will probably draw the most attention as one of this year’s co-chairs, although Alibaba’s recently retired Jack Ma has lost none of his star quality.

Not so perennial attendee Carlos Ghosn, whose jetsetting lifestyle and confident demeanour appeared to personify Davos Man.

The Nissan chairman has been incarcerated since November 19, and despite his pleas in court this week of “meritless and unsubstantiated accusations”, he looks a certainty to miss the week-long gathering of the world’s rich and powerful.

Ghosn and other likely absentees like WPP’s long-time chairman Martin Sorrell are sure to miss what was their annual Alpine sojourn. Because in this place, anything can and often does happen every year without fail.

  • Alec Hogg is the founder and editor of Biznews. He will be attending Davos for the 16th time. He will address the London Biznews Forum four days after the event ends. For ticket details click here.