Another year, another World Economic Forum global summit in the UAE. But each year is different, and – if the WEF is doing its job properly – you should walk away from the world’s biggest brainstorming session having learnt something new. Here are six things I picked up from the Yas Island think-in this week:
1. Swiss punctuality can take root in the traditionally laid-back Arab world. The opening press conference actually began one minute early, and the rest of the events all ran on time and to schedule. One of the Emirati grandees attending noted “this is a new experience for us”. A testimony to the organisers’ efficiency, and their ability to communicate it to their hosts. It all ran like, well, Swiss clockwork.
2. Uber is not a “disrupter”, except to my wallet. I took an Uber car from Dubai for day two of the summit, and was staggered to get a text telling me the trip had cost Dh510. A speaker at one of the sessions used the horrible but ubiquitous word “disrupter” – a business that changes the fundamental commercial environment – and cited Uber as an example. The only thing disrupted by my expensive and carbon-intensive trip was my credit card.
3. Ireland needs to remind the UAE of its economic existence. One of the speakers was talking about the economic role models the government of Abu Dhabi used when drawing up its Vision 2030 economic strategy plan in 2005, and cited Singapore, Norway, New Zealand and the Netherlands as the templates for the capital’s growth. Right on the first three, wrong on the last one. The Irish Republic – my country – was the fourth member of the quartet used as examples of export-led and foreign investment driven growth, not Holland. The Irish ambassador should make a call.
4. Mohammed Al Gergawi retains immense media pulling power. The UAE Minister for Cabinet Affairs immediately attracted a big crowd of print and broadcast media with a breezy “good morning” in the summit media centre, and before long it had turned into an impromptu press conference, all hectic scribbling in notebooks against the background of whirring television cameras. His message: “Oil is not the only thing that matters, we are a diversified economy now and not wholly reliant on oil any more.”
5. Thinking is hard work. The global agenda council sessions took place in a hive of hyper-activity in the areas normally used for watching Formula One, and a high-octane process it clearly was. Set up rather like a battery farm on a long row of simultaneous meetings, each group had its own little room, labelled with subjects such as Fragility, Violence and Conflict, Decarbonising Energy and Future of Real Estate. You could almost hear the brainpower buzzing.
6. All work and no play makes WEF a dull event. As is the case in the annual shindig at Davos, some of the best intellectual exchanges take place outside the formal confines of the summit. After the formalities were over for the day, many participants adjourned to the terrace of the Yas Viceroy hotel, which quickly became a rather more relaxed version of the summit itself. WEF bigwigs and high-profile participants rubbed shoulders by the fountain overlooking the grand prix track. It was a veritable Babel of interconnectivity, and the WEF’s top communications man picked up the bill for our little gathering. Nice gesture, and much appreciated before the trip back to Dubai, in a normal taxi, costing less than Dh200. No disruption at all.
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