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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 January, 2004, 09:58 GMT
Davos searches for global silver lining

By Tim Weber
BBC News Online business editor in Davos

A Swiss policeman walks past the WEF's congress hall
The gloomy weather matches the mood of the meeting
It is not Davos at its prettiest.

The Swiss mountain village may sit in a winter wonderland, with huge snow drifts hiding the concrete-steel ugliness of its more modern buildings.

But the clouds hang low, the light is gloomy, and the town is strangely quiet, with most sound swallowed up by the densely swirling snow.

With visibility poor, the weather is an apt symbol of the week ahead at the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Political hangover?

Two years ago, after the September 11 attacks when the forum was switched from Davos to New York, the war against terror united most participants.

Last year, the imminent war against Iraq divided them.

But at least there was a focus to the proceedings.

This year's official theme - "Partnering for Security and Prosperity" - could turn out to be not much more than the sincere wish of the organisers.

Swiss police officers talk to a lady at a checkpoint
Security is tight
Yes, WEF co-chief executive Jose Maria Figueres is right when he argues that business (a.k.a. prosperity) and security (a.k.a. politics) "are nowadays completely intertwined".

But the poor are getting poorer, and the war on terror is not yet won.

The tight security in Davos, with police officers at every corner and often in between, only adds to the sense of gloom and global insecurity.

To make things worse, transatlantic relations are near an all-time low.

The plunge of the dollar is creating economic seasickness.

So this year's meeting could feel like a morning with a really really bad hangover, where nobody can stand the sight of each other.

A silver lining?

If it turns out to be that way, it will not be for want of trying.

US Vice President Dick Cheney, no friend of Old Europe, has said he will come to the forum at short notice.

Reports of anti-American sentiment are overblown
Frank Brown, PricewaterhouseCoopers
US Attorney General John Ashcroft is here as well, explaining the war on terror.

And Commerce Secretary Donald Evans is at hand to mend fences over trade.

Plenty of European politicians (and business people) both from inside and outside the EU are at hand to listen and respond to the charm offensive.

Not every one of them will be as blunt as Igor Yurgens, vice-president of the Union of Russian Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, who wants to know "where US unilateralism is going to take us".

The Davos way

It could be Davos' unique mix of politicians, business people and campaigners that helps to brighten prospects.

Samuel DiPiazza, global chief executive of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), says that business leaders don't like "disruptions created by overactive politicians" that, for example, "harm foreign trade".

An WEF employee cleans a sign
Just time for a last-minute polish
If anybody will push hard to get global trade talks back on track, it will be business leaders around the world, says Mr DiPiazza.

Frank Brown, global advisory leader at PwC, chimes in: "I spend 20% of my time travelling across Europe, and transatlantic relations are not as bad as it is made out to be."

"The reports of anti-American sentiment are overblown," he says.

The forum offers plenty of opportunities for big business to nudge politicians along, with nearly every day offering at least one session on transatlantic tensions.

Schmoozing time

And even if the political debates produce nothing but hot air, not all is lost for Davos men and women.

"I'm here to network," says Paul Rice, chief executive of TransFair, a not-for-profit firm that certifies fair trade products in the USA.

He hopes to show business leaders that fair trade can be good for a company's bottom line.

And with the launch of the first ever fair trade bananas in the United States just this week, he is hot on the heels of the man from Chiquita, who is also due in Davos.

With plenty of opportunities for meeting friends, rivals and people that normally are hard to get hold of, the schmoozing and networking is already in full swing - even on the trains as they approach Davos.

If nothing else, it is an opportunity to "get a sense of what's going on in the world," says PwC's Frank Brown.

Davos, believes Harvard professor Robert Lawrence, is a unique place to "exchange and float ideas, and to see whether they will fly".




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