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Friday, 24 January, 2003, 12:57 GMT
Mahathir warning shakes Davos into life

"Snow clouds, followed by a brighter afternoon," ran the weather forecast.

"In the evening, icy cold blast sweeping in from Asia, leaving ill-fated Congressman scurrying for shelter."

OK. I made up the last bit.

But for accuracy, Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, might prefer BBC News Online's version to that on the Davos tourism website.

A website which also promised that anyone seeking the "tranquil idyll over the agitated life in the thriving centre" would find "peace and quiet at heart of nature" in the Swiss resort.

Rather than the thick edge of the tongue of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who escalated a debate on "Trust and Governance for a new Era" into a warning that we had entered World War Three.

And that the US was to blame.

'Collateral damage'

It used to be a joke, in Britain at least, that the US, having entered the first two world wars late, would be bang on time for the third.

But the scenes portrayed by Dr Mahathir, of Afghans and New York bankers killed since September 11 labelled no more than "collateral" damage, of terrorist and US leaders locked in a cycle of "hatred, anger, bitterness" were hardly intended to amuse.

Instead, they left some delegates - not all Americans - at the World Economic Forum's annual summit vexed and fuming over the "outburst". (Read meticulously from a prepared text.)

"Mahathir has a tendency to fire off like that," one said.

Another questioned Mahathir's own credentials as a moral saracen, when, at home, he himself has a mixed record of helping the poor.

Too early to tell

Still, what better place than Davos, 1,500m above sea level, to seize the moral high ground, and prompt at least some change of thought amid the Enron-scarred delegates below.

Things don't usually warm up until at least the Friday

US delegate

"It makes you think that the [terrorism] problem might be chronic, rather than acute," said one executive.

And the day had begun so calmly.

Asked how the week-long summit, the WEF's 33rd annual beano, compared with its predecessors, most had said that it was as yet too early to tell.

"Things don't usually warm up until at least the Friday," said a US telecoms boss.

"Then you'll see the conferences filling up, things starting to get going."

Expensive time

A Brazilian delegate awaited the weekend arrival of Lula, Brazil's new president, to see how his speech in Davos compared with one given at the anti-globalisers' World Social Forum, in Porto Alegre.

Indeed, none of the great and the greater - 2,300 business, political and social leaders are expected to attend - told me to mind my own business News Online, which might have been fair.

Some have, after all, apparently paid $35,000 to attend, about $250 an hour, which makes even a quick interview a loss of expensive time.

That old British saying "penny for your thoughts" hardly accounts for inflation.

Snow

What they did get for their money on the first day was updates on security, business and the environment, a session on Al-Qaeda, and thoughts on the future of the anti-capitalists.

Rob Portman (Photo by WEF)
Rob Portman: Brave effort

They got an opening lunch, a free Hewlett-Packard organiser (to be given back at the end of the week) and plenty of words beginning with b.

Banker Michael Johnston talked about booms, busts and bubbles. WEF head Klaus Schwab joined the B-team with bond, bind and build.

And they got snow, as the Davos website had forecast.

Running late

Enough indeed to ensure Christopher Graves, managing director of Far Eastern Economic Review, arrived half an hour late for the meeting he was meant to chair.

"It did not help the flow of things," one speaker said later.

"In some ways it would have been better if he had not turned up at all."

Congressman Rob Portman may wish he it had been him who was delayed instead.

He only stood in after original US political speaker, Senator Orrin Hatch, stayed in Washington for a key vote.

Amen

And, however, gamely Mr Portman battled - and he rallied creditably around the theme of defending democracy - the wily Mr Mahathir, with 39 years of political experience and a written speech to back him, was most applauded at the close.

A close which was, in time honoured fashion, marked by a song from a woman of some, environmental, stature.

"Amen," she sang. "Amen, amen, amen, amen."

A rather final end to a worryingly dismal debate.



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