Gloom and Doom in Davos

I’m hardly your quintessential Davos Man but I do enjoy my trips to the World Economic Forum, at which I chair the Global Agenda Council on Southeast Asia. It’s not only the chance to hobnob with the global elite, but also get a sense of how the zeitgeist of this increasingly multi-polar world is developing.

Davos this year was a blur though. Perhaps it was because my schedule was packed, or maybe it was because I was recovering from the flu. Whatever the cause, my week in Switzerland was a whir of thoughts, images and sensations.

First, the sense of gloom among the world’s movers and shakers seemed to have become de rigueur after years of slow growth. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop the various banks, multinationals and consultancies from continuing to throw expensive networking parties. I guess the gospel of austerity doesn’t also apply to the rich and powerful.

Also notable was the absence of a big Chinese delegation because of the Lunar New Year season. This gave the other East Asian nations a chance to shine. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra led a large, well-received delegation. After the twin distractions of political conflict and natural disaster, Thailand appears eager to continue vying for economic prominence.

Indonesia too had a large contingent despite the absence of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It’s a welcome sign that Indonesia’s corporate leaders are ready to engage the rest of the world alone.

I also spotted a small entourage from Burma, a clear sign if any of the country’s apparent rehabilitation. There was even a screening of the Aung San Suu Kyi biopic “The Lady,” whose Malaysian star Michelle Yeoh also put in an appearance.

Everywhere I went, I saw signs of subtle shifts in global power. The delegations from the African nations were large but they pulled little weight compared to India or Brazil.

The speeches or sessions featuring British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner caused little stir. Conversely, the Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota had a swagger about him as EU technocrats lobbied the BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India and China] for help to save Europe.

Still, there was a general, even uneasy sense in the air that Europe’s fall is facilitating Germany’s rise. You could see German products everywhere, including the shiny Audis shuttling the VIPs between Davos and Klosters and Volkswagen vans for everyone else.

I even picked up a Stern magazine special edition celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, which hailed him as an “uber-Prussian.” Indeed, there seems to be a growing nostalgia in Germany for Frederick, who solidified Prussia’s power but was also renowned for his intellectual and cultural achievements. Perhaps he reminds Germans of a time when they too were on the brink of great power, albeit untarnished by racism and fascism.

Is it more than a coincidence that Chancellor Angela Merkel has described herself as “very Prussian” and has not shied away from promoting “German values”? Whatever the case, Berlin, and its Prussian milieu may finally take their place as the financial and political heart of the Continent.

There were also encounters, whether planned or by chance. At Davos’s Indonesia Night, I wolfed down nasi goreng with senior Indonesian journalists, discussing the possibility of the country developing its own “soft power.”

In a quiet corner in a nondescript bar later on, I gossiped with my friend and Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman. He told me of three encounters with leading European policy makers, all of whom suggested that the euro zone may collapse despite Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s best efforts.

I also remember trying to locate the Occupy WEF igloos. I spent a good hour trudging through the snow (which was meters high, by the way), before giving up because of the cold.

Finally, there was a moment when I was collecting my overcoat at the Morosani Schweizerhof Hotel’s cloakroom. I paused because I remembered that it was here, last year that I saw Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of the late Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. Back then, the elder Qaddafi was the gadfly of the Arab and African worlds, while Saif was his modernizing son and the toast of policy wonks everywhere. Today, the father is buried somewhere in the Libyan desert and Saif is in a prison in Zintan.

It’s a sign of how times change, but also of how swiftly Davos moves on. You can be everybody’s golden boy one minute and a pariah the next. But that’s how the world turns.

(Karim Raslan’s column appears in the Jakarta Globe as well as Asia Sentinel. Karim divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia – and Davos, apparently.)