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Unusual World Economic Forum On Mideast Planned

by Emad Mekay

World Economic Forum: The $1,000,000,000 Cocktail Party (Feb. 2002)
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- An "extraordinary" meeting called by a leading global business group to discuss the future of the Middle East is being greeted by activists here and in the region as an attempt to divide the spoils of war and usurp the role of the United Nations.

The Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF), known for its high-profile annual meetings in the alpine resort of Davos that attract the world's corporate and political luminaries, said this week it will convene the meeting in Amman, Jordan under the theme "visions for a shared future."

The controversial Forum said in a statement that it wants to bring the "spirit of Davos" to the Middle East and complimented King Abdullah II of Jordan for agreeing to play host to the June 21-23 gathering.

One of the goals of assembling 1,900 political and business leaders is to replace a "period of conflict with the spirit of cooperation," continued the statement.

But anti-corporate globalization activists were quick to see the meeting as an attempt to further open doors for Western corporations in the oil-rich region, at a time when the Middle East is going through one of its most unstable periods.

"They want to come here to talk about doing business when the blood of Iraqi civilians hasn't yet dried and the people in the region are very angry," said Wael Khalil, an activist with the newly formed Anti-Globalization Egyptian Group (AGEG), whose Arabic acronym means "burning fire."

"This will play into our hands and not into the WEF's hands. They are creating yet another new point of mobilization and resistance. Their efforts won't come to pass," he said in an interview from Cairo.

The U.S.-led reconstruction of Iraq, where to date nine U.S. firms have received major contracts for rebuilding the occupied nation, has fuelled the anger of many people in the region and beyond, cementing their belief that the Washington-led military attack was motivated primarily by economic interests.

Many non-U.S. companies are now maneuvering for one of many sub-contracts to be awarded in Iraq.

Khalil said the region's people, already suffering from policies imposed by pro-Western elites, the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, are unlikely to welcome the Forum's brand of "cooperation."

Forum officials did not return IPS phone calls but said in their statement that the meetings would be devoted to discussing transatlantic relations, the future of the Middle East, global economic performance and the "effort to build a world more secure for all citizens."

Activists counter that the fact the meeting will be chaired by Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chief executive officer of food multinational Nestle of Switzerland, and Phillip Condit, CEO of U.S. aircraft giant Boeing, signals the pro-corporate slant of the assembly.

The critics say the "feel-good" slogans in the WEF's statement are an attempt to disguise the Forum's eagerness to emerge as an alternative to the United Nations and to advance the interest of major Western corporations.

"This is normal for the World Economic Forum, to see itself as a broker of global politics and economics," said Peter Bosshard, a Swiss national who for years lobbied against the WEF's exclusiveness and pro-business agenda.

"Whenever they see a chance, they try to jump into the fray," added Bosshard, also policy director with the California-based advocacy group International Rivers Network.

Civil society community and development groups say the region would be an easy conquest for multinationals given its dictatorial regimes and the fragility of civil society.

And given the short notice of the meeting, there might not be enough time for thorough discussion.

Matthias Herfeldt, an activist with the Zurich-based Public Eye on Davos, suggests the WEF is trying to find even more opportunities for its corporate members.

Oil companies would likely be leading the corporate charge to establish contacts and explore possibilities of doing more business in the region, he told IPS from Switzerland.

Bosshard agreed. "Certainly at the core of their mission is helping the global corporate system," he said. "Whenever they see a global crisis, be it political, military or an economic crisis, they'd want to be there but certainly with a corporate agenda."

He noted that the United Nations has yet to hold a meeting to discuss the future of the Middle East while the WEF is eagerly moving to do so.

"What they propose is to take over very much the role of the UN," added Bosshard. "The Forum's acting as a proxy without any democratic legitimacy."

The WEF's January meeting in Davos came under fire when it served as a platform for members of the then exiled Iraqi opposition to address participants.

That unscheduled talk appeared to be part of a U.S. public relations campaign that sought to make use of the high-profile, well attended annual gathering to sway reluctant world opinion towards a military invasion of Iraq.

Despite assertions by Forum officials that it is an inclusive and democratic institution, many civil society groups complain that the WEF alone picks the politicians and business leaders invited to participate at the annual gathering, and they charge that the business-orientated group is unfit to play a larger role in society.

The Forum is advised by an international business council comprised of CEOs from the world's largest companies.

"So even if they invited democratic leaders, it's still they who put the agenda and select or limit participants," said Bosshard who is among many asserting that the WEF must end its by-invitation-only system and allow more non-governmental organizations (NGOs) into its gatherings.

Some NGOs and African politicians attending the January meeting complained that the Forum focussed on issues like the invasion of Iraq and corporate economics and ignored HIV/AIDS, development, the status of women and Africa, despite loud talk from WEF officials that the body is becoming more open and inclusive.

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Albion Monitor April 30, 2003 (

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