First-hand account of the World Economic Forum meeting in Amman, Jordan, June 2003

Now I'm in Amman, where the World Economic Forum's global reconciliation summit is about to take place. The World Economic Forum is best known through its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and the typically associated anti-globalization protests. If you want to know how it looks like from the inside, read this. It is very different from the portrait of the World Economic Forum's meetings in the media.

Getting there

From California, it takes me more than 24 hours of travel time, door to door, and 10 time zones. I'm flying first to New York, and then to Amman, Jordan. Upon arrival at the Amman Queen Alia airport, I notice that there is a separate passport control counter specifically for attendees of the WEF meeting. Nice.

I'm arriving a day early, so the shuttle bus is not operational yet. Having been in other Arab countries before, I decide to ask someone inside the airport for what is a reasonable price for a taxi ride to my hotel in Amman in order to avoid any more haggling than necessary. It turns out that the government has imposed a fixed price, which is posted everywhere including inside the taxis. The first of many good impressions that some people in the government are working hard to make Jordan welcoming for foreigners (both tourists and business people — there is even a special "investor reception counter" at the airport)

It takes a while to reach my hotel; the airport is some distance from the city. Upon arrival, I notice armed guards in front of the hotel. Is that normal (in parts of Egypt, it is), or is that just for the purpose of the WEF?

The Grand Hyatt in Amman is quite luxurious, although not too expensive (from an American perspective; but then, it is an American chain). Personnel is very friendly and curteous. The bell boy points out what he calls "high-speed internet". It turns out to be a phone jack built into the phone. I try WiFi but there is no signal; well, that would have been expecting too much.

It's evening, and I decide (as I do almost always after flying east) to take a walk and also to find something to eat. (I've never been a big fan of hotel restaurants.) So I hike towards downtown Amman. (I'm also not a big fan of taxies or other forms of transportation in new cities — they prevent you from encountering the unexpected, which, in my view, is one of the primary reasons for traveling in the first place). What I see is very much an Arab city, but clearly in better shape, and richer, than many other Arab cities I have visited before (I have never been to the Gulf, however). Lots of satellite dishes on the roofs. The cars on the streets are reasonably new, and there are quite a few that are really new and expensive. Taxies are everywhere. I'm sweating, partly because of the heat, and partly because Amman indeed turns out to have been built across a very hilly landscape.

Reaching the area that my guide book describes as downtown, there are many people on the streets, shopping in little stores that line the streets. There is little of a bazaar (souk) atmosphere; again, Amman is richer and more advanced than, say, Cairo. I check out a few of the addresses for restaurants provided by my guide book but none looks like something I really want to go to. (I'm always looking for something that the locals would go to to have local food)

Finally, I see a number of basic tables with lots of locals in the alley between two buildings. That's more like it! There is no menu, and the waiters speak basically nothing that qualifies as English (to be fair, their English is much better than my Arabic, which is non-existent). I end up with an order of Hummus, shishkebab, a pile of bread and sweet tea. It tastes great, although I have to eat it from a number of carefully arranged napkins on the table. I seem to be the only tourist in the restaurant. Observing, I notice that apparently one pays by approaching a very imposing looking man who sits behind a little table overlooking the restaurant. So after I am done, I approach him, first apologizing that I don't speak Arabic (although he does not say anything, he smiles, so I suspect he understands the apology) and try to list what I had. I don't know the money yet, so I do the safe thing and hand him a 10 dinar note (about $14 US). He gives me a lot of change. Stepping out of the restaurant, I try to identify all of the coins and add them up. My result: I think I left 0.20 dinars in this restaurant for a basic, but great meal — about 28 US cents. (Later, people tell me that while it should be cheap, it is unlikely that it would be that cheap. I don't know, usually I do know how to add, and that's what I came up with …)

A day of little jet lag and much of Amman

This is my first trip on which I'm trying Melatonin to attempt to minimize jet lag. It's working beautifully: I sleep quite well, and I feel good for almost all of the day. I decide to use this day to explore Amman.

First stop: the Roman Amphitheater. The guide book recommends to use a taxi or a bus, but as so often, I decide to walk, to see something of the world. Walking through one neighborhood, some teenage boys seem to be laughing as I walk by. Do I look funny? I don't think so: others are wearing sunglasses, too, I don't wear a hat, and everything I'm carrying is in my pockets. Hmm.

Reaching the amphitheater area, I notice a lot of booths and signs that point to this being a prime tourist area, which would be consistent with what my guide book says. But: I don't see any tourists. None. Looks like I'm the only one around. This is weird. The amphitheater is open and free, and I decide to climb up and enjoy the view, which is great.

And now it occurs to me: I'm the only guy in town who is wearing shorts! How could anyone survive in long pants at this heat, and it's not even 10 am yet! Suddenly I feel a little embarrassed. I'm the only guy in town who shows his legs. There are no western tourists, who probably would be wearing shorts like me. And there probably haven't been many since September 11, 2001. So I'm the only one. That would explain that this is a new sight for the teenagers. Well.

After touring one of the museums and the exhibits on the citadel, I finally see a few tourists. But there should be a 100 times more here. For dinner, I try Fakhr Al-Din, a restaurant recommended by my guide book that is close to my hotel. Great atmosphere, great food, great service. Very reasonable price for the quality of the restaurant. Highly recommended, and in fact, I return a few days later for another dinner.

A Tour of the Jordan Education Initiative (Saturday morning)

The WEF invited me to participate in a tour of a girls' school and a "knowledge station" Saturday morning. It was organized to highlight some of the achievements and continuing projects of the Jordan Education Initiative.

First we visit a girls' secondary school in Amman. There's a long line of people lined up to greet us and I feel like on a state visit — but then, to a certain extent, it is. It turns out we will have two ministers of the Jordanian government with us: the minister of education and several of his staff, and the minister of information and communication technologies. There are several speeches. The director of the school is nervous, but I can't blame her. I get to talk to several of the teachers, and briefly, to some of the teenage students, all of whom speak excellent English.

The highlight of the visit are the projects that the girls have been doing with the help of computers and the internet. For example, they show us a multimedia presentation that they created themselves, a little piece of Visual Basic software that they programmed, and a physics project that they did together with another class of s
tudents — in Canada, through e-mail. The wonders of internet-based communications: I'm always in awe about the possibilities of bringing young people together through innovative use of the internet, across cultural and national boundaries, which have created so much tragedy in the past.

I'm particularly impressed by one girl who presents, (like all the others) in flawless English, the results of her study in biology. With a tone of supreme confidence in her voice, she summarizes them: "Smoking is bad for you. Stop smoking now.". In a place like California, that would not be too unusual. But this is the Middle East, where almost all girls in this school, including our speaker, wear a head scarf: I'm sure that at least some of them come from very traditional, male-dominated households where smoking is a matter of (male) life, and certainly not one to be questioned by teenage girls. This is a wonderful example how knowledge empowers, and empowerment leads to change. Probably the exact type of change (technology leading to social impact) that the Jordanian government has in mind when they embark on this type of new teaching. I'm impressed, by the girl, the school, and the plan.

Then, we drive out of Amman to a little village, called Iraq Al-Amir. In the middle of the village, there is a building that looks no different than any of the others. It could have stood there for centuries, as some of the other buildings probably have. But now, it contains what the Jordanians call a "Knowledge Station" — half a dozen networked PCs with an internet connection and common (Microsoft) desktop applications, with an associated training program. Through a smart multiplication program, they train a local resident to be the local coach. Villagers can come in and use the PCs for whatever they need to use them for, after having gone through training. The fees can be waived for those who are known not to be able to pay. (However, I don't get a good answer when I ask why they only do Microsoft software, and no open-source software such as OpenOffice, given that funding is certainly an issue)

The thing that is really impressive to me is that it is in the middle of a very traditional village. In fact, the buildings next to the Knowledge Station house a group of hand-weaving women and a traditional pottery shop. Obviously, the Jordanian government wants this, and 100 villages with Knowledge Stations like it, to simply jump straight from a traditional economy to a knowledge economy, skipping over the industrial phase. They certainly have guts. On the other hand, some assumptions are very naive: for example, even if the potters and the weavers learn the skills to set up a website from which one can order their handmade products, the likelihood that that's all that is needed in terms of distribution channel is not very high. The world is a more complicated place than "set up website, world will buy." Similarly, it's great if most of today's high school students learn PC skills, but it remains to be seen whether there is a similar demand within the Jordanian economy for graduates with those skills once they graduate. But then, they have to start somewhere, and this is as good a plan as any.

Day 1 (registration and afternoon sessions)

I decide to take the shuttle bus directly from the education tour to the WEF meeting facility at the shores of the Dead Sea. Turns out I upset the security protocol somewhat: I registered very late for the meeting, so I am the only one on the bus who did not receive the mailing of a temporary security badge in advance. Because of me, the shuttle bus is being stopped at the first check point towards the Dead Sea. After frantic telephone calls, it turns out that my name does show up on the security list. So myself, and the whole bus, may proceed.

The meeting takes place in the meeting rooms of the Moevenpick Dead Sea, the neighboring Marriott Dead Sea, and a special Royal Tent that is big enough for all meeting attendees. Of course, there are more metal detectors, and the WEF have special badges that are coupled with an information system which pops up your picture at all check points. That makes it quite hard to attempt to intrude with a stolen badge. Registration is painless and well-organized, once I make it past the hordes of international press with all of their equipment that has camped out in the hotel lobby.

Here I am, and it turns out, sessions have started already. I jump straight in to attend two panel discussions on Middle East politics. Couldn't have timed it better: "everyone" is there, from Germany's Joschka Fischer (Foreign Minister) to Mohamed ElBaradei (IAEA Director) to several American Congressmen and assorted politicians from the region and beyond. These two sessions are on the record, which means cameras are running, and some of the same public fighting is going on that one sees on TV all the time these days. Most of the WEF's sessions are off the record, no cameras, journalists are not allowed to quote, and that's where the real meat of the meeting takes place, in my opinion.

One bombshell is being dropped right there: on the subject of Hamas, the very senior publisher of Al Hayat, a well-respected, London-based Arabic newspaper, says that he has attempted, for the past two years, to get Hamas to agree to a ceasefire. He says he talks to them at least twice a week. And, he says: "I have failed", in spite of trying a very broad set of alternatives. Like others, it takes me a few minutes until I realize that this is a very meaningful statement: assuming that he is for real (and he is), there is no reason to assume that anyone else would have more success. In the context of the panel discussion at that time, this means that Hamas will not be a party to middle eastern peace, and everyone suddenly realizes that that means, it has to be destroyed as an organization sooner or later.

Day 1 (evening plenaries and Jordanian evening)

We walk over to the Royal Tent, in which the plenary sessions take place. Coming out of the air-conditioned meeting rooms, the heat is a shock, followed by a second shock: the air in the tent is only somewhat cooler than outside. Everyone tries to get close to the AC units in the tent that are all lined around the edges of the tent. (after I return to my hotel in the evening, my suit is drenched: I decide there is no chance I could possibly wear it for another day)

Klaus Schwab, the founder and initiator of the World Economic Forum as an organization, officially opens the meeting. He is joined by Jordan's King Abdullah II. The King is still younger than the majority of the meeting attendees, and of course only became King after a tumultous last-minute change of mind by his father, the late King Hussein. But that is all forgotten when he speaks. I have listened to many speakers, and many good speakers, and at a meeting like this one, there is certainly competition. The King stands out. He is completely in control, never refers to his notes as far as I can see (not sure he even has any), speaks perfect "orator English", knows exactly what he says, and why, and comes across as the personification of effective leadership. I'm highly impressed. What he says is 100% consistent with what I saw in the morning in the schools and out in the countryside. I see why the no-nonsense, get-things-done, technocratic ministers who I met in the morning work for him. They follow him because he has the same priorities and incredible leadership qualities that allows him to get things done that others could not. And from many conversations during this meeting, I know that he converted many other attendees as well. If it is true that one recognizes the leader by his followers, Abdullah must be a prime exhibit.

Additional speakers follow: the German president, Johannes Rau, who manages to speak in German (why, oh why). A panel of Carly Fiorina, Abdullah Gul, Al-Thani, Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, Jacob Zuma and Jose Maria Figu
eres. A brief speech by Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan — I have to admit, I do not know what exactly he was trying to say. And finally, we all follow a long line of carpets and torch holders down towards the hotel's amphitheater, close to the beach, for the promised Jordanian Evening.

For the Jordanian evening, they brought in the Jordanian Youth (Symphony) Orchestra, who has the challenge to play in what must be an atmosphere ranging from problematic (acoustically) to impossible (temperature-wise). They do reasonably well, as youth orchestras go, although they do not get along with the guest conductor, or he with them. The more senior of the two solo violonists is clearly an original, but is a highly impressive player. Conductor and orchestra have a hard time following his (quite correct, he studied with the right people in Vienna) interpretation when they play Schoene Rosmarin. Paulo Coelho, with whom I will share a panel Monday morning, recites a few poems, accompanied by an improvised, and as I learn later, unplanned solo violin. The two are much more on the same level than the previous combinations of performers, and it comes out beautifully.

Finally, there is self-serve food provided at so many booths. I meet a zillion interesting people: from company executives of the western world and the Arab world (particularly the gulf states) to some people who lived in downtown Baghdad during the war, to CEOs of non-profits helping the world's aid organizations get their IT into shape, to, to, to, … My head whirls, and the substantial business card stack that I brought melts down pretty quickly. There is enough material here for months of follow-up. I'm introducing myself both with my day job at R-Objects (now: NetMesh) and as co-founder of Bridge The Gap. Both get substantial interest.

Late at night, I get the bus to get back to my hotel in Amman to get a few hours of sleep and a fresh suit. Mine is drenched.

Day 2

For me, the day starts with the shuttle bus back to the meeting site, and a working breakfast on The Role of the Private Sector in Rebuilding Iraq. Other parallel sessions deal with corporate governance in the Middle East, the role of international community in rebuilding Iraq, and a panel dialog between middle east peace advocates and political leaders. In my session, I get to talk to many interesting people: for example, a couple who have lived in Baghdad for a long time and lived through the war there. The first things on their lips: how come the press focuses so much on Basra having only a spotty water supply after the Americans and British took over. They say, Basra has not had anything resembling a stable water supply for years under Saddan Hussein. They say they have no idea why anyone would expect that the situation would be any different immediately after the regime change. And they question whether the international press has any idea about this part of the world that they are reporting from. I have no answer, but these are rhetorical questions anyway.

Each breakfast table appoints one speaker, who then summarizes the table's discussion for the whole room. It is interesting to observe how different the public speaking skills are of various participants. Not too surprisingly, most tables have discussed about the same things, with only slightly different focus. At my table, a consulting firm hands out a nicely written business proposition to the people at the table with color pictures etc. I don't read it, and I don't think anyone else does either. I "rescue" a minister of a gulf state from someone overzealous who seems to want to talk him into skipping a public request for proposals in favor of doing a private deal with his firm. He remains firm, however. Fortunately, there is not too much of that here, but I can understand the temptation for someone with a real sales background — everyone is a decision maker.

Time for a quick coffee break. Brief introductions to lots of people. On to a discussion between Joseph Biden (US Senator), Joschka Fischer (German Foreign Minister), Ana Palacio (Spanish Foreign Minister), Javier Solana Madriaga (EU Foreign and Security Policy chief), Vaira Vike-Freiberga (President of Latvia), Alain Dieckhoff (Director of a French international policy think-tank) and Nigel Roberts (CNBC, UK), on the Europe's Role in the Middle East. At least this is what the title says, the discussion is more about US-EU relationship and the recent fractions within the to-be-expanded EU. Some political posturing is going on, but this session is on the record, so the cameras are running. I would have liked to visit all the parallel sessions as well that would be been similarly interesting.

On to the Royal Tent, this time with additional, but still not very effective, mammooth air conditioning units that they pulled in over night on trailers. This plenary session first hears a determined, but also somewhat more humble speech than I would have expected from Paul Bremer, the American in charge of Iraq at this time. He explains the coalition's priorities, and that the economy is priority number 1 (This is different from the usual press reporting that tends to say that security is/should/must be priority number 1). It is followed by a panel that has a US senator, the secretary-general of the Arab League, the USAID administrator, a former minister of Iraq, the Jordanian prime minister, someone from the UN, moderated by someone from South Africa, of all places.

The lunches are working lunches, each focused on a particular country in the region. There is even one specifically for the Palestinian Authority, although that stretches the definition of the term Country at this time. As I am very impressed by Jordan, I decide in favor of the Jordanian lunch. To a large extent, it turns out to be a pitch by the government towards the international business community to invest in Jordan. They have very nice collateral, both in print and the multimedia show that they have put on. The King personally addresses the attendees of the lunch, and later several government officials speak as well. They make some self-deprecating jokes — not something I'm used to from officials of an Arab country, but very refreshing. Their big pitch is the special economic zone that they are setting up in Aqaba, with all sorts of incentives to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). I think this government understands clearly that FDI not only creates jobs in their country, but also helps create an experienced work force that could then spawn locally-owned businesses in new industries — much like centers like Stanford have spawned many local businesses around them over the years. Again I have interesting people at my table: a lady from Bangladesh who works hard towards women empowerment. A VP of a large, relatively traditional manufacturer who has business interests in the region. I'm not sure that the two look entirely eye-to-eye on the issues of women in leading positions. I myself tend to share what is probably the prevalent Silicon Valley attitude now and say so: gender does not matter to me, or religion, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or whatever. Just ability and drive counts.

Back again to the Royal Tent through scorching heat. Several people from the gulf region tell me that it's much hotter where they come from. That dampens my interest in visiting the gulf one day, I have to admit. This one is a panel on the future of the middle east, with the Israeli Foreign Minister (with the suitable last name Shalom), as well as several Arab foreign ministers. It's great that these days, it is actually possible to see a panel with both Arab and Israeli participation at the same time: as we all know, many Arab states still do not recognize the state of Israel, or even its right to exist. The latter is, and always has been incomprehensible to me. I might disagree with a country's policies as much as I want, but that does not mean I need to advocate extermination. Which, in my mind, is
really what not recognizing someone's right to exist means. So it's great that this panel is taking place at all, as it is evidence that there is at least some progress on the peace front. On the other hand, hostile remarks are clearly being made, so a long way towards real peace clearly remains. I don't think that signed peace agreements would immediately fix any of it, there is too much psychological baggage that everyone is carrying.

The other thing I notice again (as I did in several other sessions before) how much "historical hurt" there is on both the Arab and the Israeli side, and much (now unchangeable) history impacts today's demands. It would be truly a master facilitator, from the US or anywhere, who could move the discussion away from who did what to whom when in the past to "regardless how we got into this mess that we are in right now, how are we going to fix it so we can live in peace?". I think it's necessary but at least bordering at the impossible at this point in time. The Israeli minister complains bitterly that Palestinian school books still have math questions like this one: if you kill 2 Israeli soldiers, and 3 settlers, how many Jews have you killed? The Palestinian reponds that even before the Palestinian Authority came into existence, when Israel had full control over the areas now striving to become Palestine, this was the text and the Israelis did not change it either when they had the chance. I think it would be nice if the situation progressed to the point where we would not have to have this kind of discussion of You Did, I Did any more.

By the way, the joint Israeli-Palestinion peace initiative called One Voice has hung up posters all over the meeting facilities of their declaration of principles for peace. I am told that lots of the attendees are signing up. Isabel Maxwell, who I met at a previous WEF meeting, is one of their principals.

Suddenly, we have to leave the aisles (that are closer to the air conditioning units) for security reasons: US Secretary of State Colin Powell is the next speaker. Klaus Schwab introduces him, and makes a point to be extremely welcoming. That isn't a surprise: Colin Powell dwells on the point how different his reception is now compared to his reception at this year's Davos meeting in January (which was during the run-up to the Iraq war). I did not attend that meeting, so I don't know first-hand, but apparently he felt like he had landed in a hornet's nest at that meeting. His point is probably hard to swallow for many, but there is at least some truth to it: now that the Iraq war is over, and the regime has been changed, everyone agrees that the situation is a better one than before (although of course, opinions continue to differ whether the degree of improvement warranted the means to do so).

After this session, I take the opportunity to download some e-mail in what the organizers call the Cyber Cafe. While doing so, I chat with one of the support staff who happens to work for a local accounting firm. I think he is typical for many educated, driven Jordanians: he sees all the good changes, is not too happy that there haven't been more, does not understand the resistance of traditional Arab societies against it, asks what it would take for companies from the US and other places to start doing business in Jordan, and is a genuinely nice guy who does a very good job "pitching" his country.

I briefly listen into another session on security, before going back to the Royal Tent where Jordan's Queen Rania and US ex-president Bill Clinton are about to host a charity dinner in favor of Iraqi children. Admission turns out to be a big mess: apparently, one was supposed to bring a specific invitation card that everyone found in their meeting package, but many people, including myself, did not realize this. Security prevents us from entering the tent until all others with card have been let in. Some people are very unhappy and threaten security with all sorts of negative articles they are going to write in publications that they are affiliated with. Difficult situation for the gate keepers, but after waiting for 45 min or, we get to enter.

The tent has been redecorated in a dinner arrangement. It is very pretty: there are candles and decorations everywhere. I float aimlessly between tables to find a seat, when Susanne Czerny of Burda Media invites me to her table: it turns out that the people at this table also include Christiane Armanpour (the foreign reporting chief of CNN), James Rubin (former US assistant secretary of State), famous author Paulo Coelho and several other very interesting people. Where else than the World Economic Forum could you have a nice chat with people like that over dinner? Everyone is very approachable, and the word "stiff" does not come to mind at all.

I leave just about when Bill Clinton appears on stage — not because of him, but because it is very late already, I have a trip back to Amman in front of me, and I need to get the first bus in the morning in order to be there in time for the panel that I'm on. I make it to my hotel room at 12:15am, shower (a necessity after days like this) and am about to fall into bed, completely exhausted, when I hear the hotel's PA system: "This is an emergency. Leave the hotel immediately through the next emergency exit." I remember all the soldiers and Humvees around the hotel, and notice that the PA announcement does not specify the nature of the emergency. I tell you, it makes you think in that minute: of course, the World Economic Forum attendees are a prime target for any sort of terrorism. I put on jeans and a T-shirt, grab my papers, wallet and airplane ticket plus laptop, and leave the room. There are a bunch of people on the floor trying to find another emergency exit: they claim that they smelled smoke from the first one they tried. We find another exit and run down 6 stories to the ground floor. Lots of people on the street. We find the front door, but there is business as usual in the hotel lobby. They tell us that we should not worry and go back to our rooms. Which we do, sweating again. I'm too tired for another shower, and have less than 5 hours of sleep left anyway.

Day 3

In a freshly-laundered suit, I get on the first bus at 6:30 in the morning. I'm the only one on the bus, I suspect everyone else is doing the sensible thing and sleeping a little longer. The driver apologizes that he cannot leave yet as our security escort is not here yet. I hadn't even noticed an escort during the previous bus trips! But it does make sense. He offers to get me coffee from the hotel as "compensation". Just then, the escort arrives, and off we are to the other hotels in Amman to pick up their early-risers. There are some, and they ask the driver to do what he can to make up for lost time. He certainly does: I see the needle of his speedometer from my seat, and to my horror, it stays at the very maximum of the scale (120 kmh) for extended periods of time during the wild ride from the 800m or so above sea level in Amman down to the 400m below sea level at the Dead Sea, where the meeting takes place. I have never seen any kind of vehicle do that, and I'm suddenly not so sure any more that terrorism is the biggest threat we face in Jordan.

I look for the sessions on Communications and Technology that start with a breakfast and a panel discussion. It includes the European head of IBM, a Turkish entrepreneur, the head of a Mexican TV station, the Jordanian minister of Information and Communications Technology as well as Newsweek's Middle East editor and the CEO of CNBC Arabiya. The essential question is: how can we grow communication and information technology industries in the middle east, as they are essential for increasing GDP per head in the region, and also typically create desirable social dynamics (e.g. a culture of problem solving rather than fundamentalism).

The gentleman from IBM Europe advocates public-private p
artnerships similar to the EU's framework programmes for technology development. He argues that the 50/50 split of expenses between the private and public sectors reduce the risk of advanced technology development and create faster progress than if either the public or the private sector embarked on similar programs by themselves. I do not say it, but I beg to differ: in my experience (in a previous life, I was closely related to some of those European projects), they tend to do interesting work, but the results often (typically?) do not make it into industrial practice. If such results do not make it into industrial practice, why fund them? Both government and private industry could spend their money more effectively in other ways.

We break into two rooms, one discussing how to attract increased cooperation and investment, and the other discussing how to create a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

"My" Session: Creating a Culture of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Needless to say, I am extremely pleased that the World Economic Forum considered it appropriate to ask me to be one of the discussion leaders on the subject of entrepreneurship and innovation — a subject that was on the lips of pretty much anyone during this conference talking on almost any topic. I had a number of very distinguished co-panelists:

  • Zafar Siddiqi, chairman and CEO, CNBC Arabiya, UAE (facilitator)
  • Fatima Al-Balooshi, Chairman, Educational Technology Department, College of Education, University of Bahrain, Bahrain
  • Ahmad Bin Byat, director-general, Dubai Technology, E-Commerce and Media Free Zone, UAE
  • William M. Campbell, President, US Networks, Discovery Communications, USA (as in "Discovery Channel")
  • Paulo Coelho, (famous) author, Brazil
  • James Cordahi, Sr Middle East Correspondent, Bloomberg News, UAE
  • Debra Dunn, SVP, Corporate Affairs, HP, USA
  • John Gage, Chief Researcher and Directory, Science Office, Sun Microsystems, USA
  • Uzi de Haan, VP and GM, Israel, Jordan & Palestinian Authority, Philips Electronics, Israel
  • Amish Mehta, Chairman, CommercialWare & Vector Capital, USA
  • Ricardo Salinas-Pliego, Chairman, President & CEO, TV Azteca, Mexico
  • Yoshi Vardi, founding investor ICQ and pundit, Israel
  • Unexpectedly, His Royal Highness, the brother of Jordan's King Abdullah, joins this panel as well. I think this is a good indication how important the Jordanian government considers this subject, and how committed they are to make it work.

There are lots of good comments. Debra Dunn argues that there are substantial local differences that one needs to take into account, every country and region is different. John Gage points out the importance of having a network of business acquaintances and experienced advisors. Yoshi Vardi thinks that Silicon Valley needs to be the guiding model as it is one of the few (only?) regions that have really figured it out.

I start my remarks with a rhetorical question: "if you bumped into an entrepreneur at the mall, would you recognize them?" As one of the few entrepreneurs on the panel, I feel I need to explain what distinguishes entrepreneurs from other types of people. So I list three things that an entrepreneur is all about:

  • Vision for a different world: at the beginning, there must be a vision how the world, or a small part of it, should be different. This strong vision drives the entrepreneur, because he or she believes that the world would be a better place, in some way, if just certain things were different from how they are today. The entrepreneur sets out to make exactly that change happen.
  • Hard work: many people have a vision, but few set out to do all the hard work necessary to turn this vision into reality. Hard work is essential to entrepreneurship.
  • Sustainability: true entrepreneurs are driven by creating something that lasts. They are not interested in a flash-in-a-pan type of thing.

Apparently, I was successful in getting those three points across: later during the day, several people who were in the audience quote them back to me almost verbatim. The message must have stuck. Good!

So the essence of entrepreneurship is to make change happen. And consequently, the requirements for seeing a lot of entrepreneurs in a region are:

  • sufficient supply of qualified entrepreneurs (which links to good, mainly technical and business education). Previously, it was reported that a business plan competition in the UAE (I think?) recently drew over a thousand entries. This does not seem to be a problem in the region.
  • an societal attitude of "Change is Good". Comparing Germany, my native country, and Silicon Valley, my adopted home, I explain that this is the main thing that distinguishes them, and that this is the reason I'm doing what I'm doing in Silicon Valley, but would never have done it in Germany.
  • the experience how to do it, and a network. This echos John Gage's earlier point.

At this point, I introduce Bridge The Gap, the entrepreneur-advisor matchmaking initiative that I co-founded, and that I blogged about earlier.

To my surprise, and, I have to admit, great satisfaction, the idea of such an initiative later ends up on the slides presented to the plenary session to all members and attendees of this meeting of the World Economic Forum. Maybe, just maybe, we (my co-founders and myself) were thinking the right thing when we decide to do this, but not thinking big enough. I will have to find out how this idea made it on those slides.

Day 3 continues

After hearing a summary of the various insights from both sessions, we all head to the Royal Tent to listen to the special addresses of the chief trade representatives of the US and the EU, Robert Zoellick and Pascal Lamy. The highlight of the session is the US announcement to work towards a free trade area with the middle east by 2010. Jordan has such an agreement in place already, and says the amount of trade they do with the US skyrocketed, with many thousands of jobs being created in Jordan as a result. I'm a big fan of this idea, which, by the way, is not all that different in principle to the EU's idea of preventing war through European integration.

I participate in a working lunch on the subject of demographics. And here is another lesson. An Israeli researcher, affiliated with an Israeli think-tank, opens up the session by summarizing the impact of demographic change on Israeli politics in the region between the Mediterrenean and the Jordan River (i.e. Israel plus a future Palestine). The issue is that the Palestinian population grows substantially faster than the Jewish one, and within the course of a few years, the current Jewish majority of the region will become a minority, simply through the existing demographic trends. As any good researcher would, he refrains from stating an opinion. He simply (and very well, I should say) describes the shape and form of the trend and the impact of this trend on the various segments of the Israeli political landscape. He says there are two main issues: given the trend, it becomes less and less possible for an Israeli politician to argue in favor of the Palestinian right of return, but on the other hand, the separation of Jerusalem becomes more likely (as it otherwise would soon become Arab-majority).

One of the next speakers, an Arab, argues vehemently against him. His main point is that the very notion of a Jewish state amounts to racism. Instead, states in the region should not define themselves by ethnicity, or religion but be secular criteria. Of course, these are all good points for this discussion. However, the Israeli and the Arab are completely talking past each other: one essentially describes trends as he sees them (the impact of demographics on Israeli political discourse),
while the other assumes that disagreeing with the discourse somehow is a counter-argument to the description of trends.

I sincerely hope I'm not the only one who notices the disconnect here (no one mentions it, but then, there are lots of other good contributions to the discussion that people might feel are more important). The lesson that I draw is this: if a discussion on something as comparatively simple as this single issue of demographics causes such a disconnect, which would make it completely impossible to advance the discussion in any particular way, what kinds of disconnect do we have to expect during discussions of the really hard questions, like war and peace? Both of the discussion participants are obviously intelligent and open-minded people; that was apparently not enough.

In the lobby, I encounter some more interesting people, this time with venture capital connections. I get several introductions and promise to follow-up. We hurry back to the Royal Tent for the final sessions.

There is summary panel that discusses some of the recurring themes, key insights, and future work from the different sessions. As I mentioned before, bringing together entrepreneurs from the developed world with aspiring entrepreneurs from the developing world makes it to that list, and I'm impressed.

Finally, we hear from Kofi Annan who explains why in his view, the United Nations is such an important organization. The final words are spoken by King Abdullah, the host, and Klaus Schwab, the founder and president of the World Economic Forum. As soon as the session closes, everyone runs back to the buses to get out of the heat and back to Amman. We all promise each other to stay in touch and follow up.

I'm very tired and only have a quick dinner before going to sleep. I either got too much sun or too much heat, and I don't feel too well, so I stay in my hotel room for most of the next day. I had wanted to take a one-day trip somewhere interesting, but didn't feel like it. Fortunately, I'm okay again the next day which is my traveling day to get back home.

The flight back and some broader thoughts

I'm writing much of this on the lengthy flight back home. An extraordinary meeting. Extraordinary people. The first time I heard the WEF's subtitle — To Improve The State Of The World — I took it as a (silly) platitude. It sounded like so many useless corporate mission statements that sound grandiose but end up as a farce because the gap is too large between the corporate mission statement and everyday reality.

But as unlikely as it is on the face of it, the WEF's subtitle is probably fairly close to the truth. If not there, where else would you expect to find the people who are in a position to, and do, improve the state of the world, on a "world" (as opposed to project, or community, or country) level? There are lots of people out there who — mostly without ever having attended a meeting — demonize the WEF as that secret capitalism-run-amok club of old, cigar-smoking big business types who plot to take over the world, ruin the environment and hurt society as much as they can. If that description is correct, the WEF must be really good at hiding this part of the meetings from me. Mind you, this was not the first WEF meeting I have attended.

Instead, the people I have met are generally very good people. The type of people that one would want to trust with one's money. The type of people who get things done, and typically have a personal mission in life that very far from "let's ruin the world some more". They are clearly business people, or politicians with a understanding of, or tendency towards thinking like business people. In my definition, business people are those who have managed to figure out a way of transforming the world according to their vision that pays for itself, i.e. by creating value, part of which they can extract. Unlike one is a die-hard socialist, everyone agrees these days that business and enterprise is at the heart of value creation, i.e. the creation of good things for society. So that can't be it.

I suspect the demonization has more to do with the feeling of being excluded. WEF meetings really can't be much larger than they are, simply because if so, they would become ineffective. So the WEF has to restrict attendance very sharply, and that means that the vast majority of people who would like to attend meetings simply cannot attend. (This is one of the reasons why I am very grateful to be invited back occasionally, and in this case, even asked to play an official role). The do select the movers and shakers, i.e. the people in a position of power who really can and will impact the state of the world. That in itself is a good selection criteria: if one assumes that good people ar generally being recognized as good people, they will end up in positions of power and influence sooner or later, and so a position of power is a better discriminator than, say, a loud voice.

During the meeting, I was briefly interviewed by a journalist for an international paper. Among other things, she asked about my view re WEF and the anti-globalization protesters. I said that in my view, a lot of, or maybe even most of the anti-globalization protesters are primarily against things. Against free trade, against the influence of one culture on another, against technology, and even against choice by free individuals. One of my principles in business and in life is that I stay away from people who are mainly against things. I have never figured out to embark with them on anything constructive, as being against does not readily lead to anything constructive. I only know how to deal with people who have ideas and plans, and preferably ideas and plans that are better than the ones I have myself. I have also come to believe that all successful business people share this attitude in one way or another. A lot of people in the anti-globalization movement simply do not have a better plan (or if they do, they hide it pretty well). A plan that is feasible and can be executed, and that they are executing, rather than just complaining about no one executing it. As long as I have the choice, I choose to hang out with the people with a plan. Like the incredible people I have had the fortune to meet at World Economic Forum meetings.

If you are looking for the devil, you will not find it at World Economic Forum meetings. Just people who sincerely work hard, every day, to move the world forward one more notch, every day. You may not agree with them, but at the minimum, they should have your respect. If you do your part to move the world forward, one more notch, every day, they will certainly pay you theirs. And you will be part of the community from whom World Economic Forum attendees are drawn, whether you realize it or not.