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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 January, 2003, 09:08 GMT
The Davos experience

By Rodney Smith
BBC World Service business presenter

The world's powerful and rich are congregating in Davos again to attend the World Economic Forum. Rodney Smith, who has reported for many years from Davos, describes what it is all about. Suits, suits, suits; that's almost all you see in this quiet little Alpine town in late January, during the short but lucrative take-over of this ski resort by the World Economic Forum.

There are middle aged locals who've never known anything different.

In Davos, business folk and politicians agree to be crowded together in a small grey concrete Swiss village where they have to bump into one another and enjoy a little light schmoozing, without the palaver of too much preparation through offices and secretaries.

They are so uncluttered by minders and aides, that they have no choice but to meet and talk to one another.

Wandering Davos in the evening during the Forum is like living in some fantasy; rubbing shoulders with Bill Clinton one minute or the other Bill - Gates - the next.

It's that sort of town.

Cold, very cold in the Alpine winter. But warmed by the presence of lots of human beings.

Putting Davos on the map

Davos is an opportunity for world leaders to catch up with the latest gossip, discuss their whims, fancies and plans for the future.

It all started when Professor Klaus Schwab started to assemble people - at first mainly Europeans - to discuss how to renovate a commercial world he saw slipping into a socialist mire.

The forum began really to grow in the mid 1970s when the Schwab Group moved beyond Europe, and soon the WEF was simply known around the world as Davos.

And it was Britain's reforming prime minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan who put Davos on the map, when they started to attend the meetings.

Dangerous discussions?

By the left, though, for years the forum was perceived as a shady and potentially dangerous organisation, a grouping of right-wing bankers and capitalists that threatened the way the world worked.

There are two other major gatherings of the economically and politically powerful in the year - the World Economic Summits, designed to get the world economy back on track after the oil price shock of 1973/4, and and the September annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

They are planned over time, expertly managed by civil servants, the so-called "sherpas" who prepare all the groundwork, so that the politicians can appear before the cameras to sign on the dotted line.

They represent much that Davos tried to avoid.

Join the club

In fact Davos is very like the clubby world of London's St James', where gentlemen of an earlier era planned and managed an empire.

These days, this club is firmly for women too - they are still outnumbered at Davos, but every year their numbers grow.

And the empire they plan is no longer a simple geographic place, or places, of red territory on a map.

It is the empire of capitalist enterprise, the future of growth and development for all that comes with and from wealth.

Davos would make Karl Marx quake, but Adam Smith would probably understand what's going on - and why.

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