Populism, nationalism, protectionism rising
DAVOS: Every year, world leaders, global business elite and some of the world’s brightest academics attend the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Attendees this year included Microsoft founder Bill Gates, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Chinese President Xi Jinping and many others. Kuwait is well represented at this event through ministers, businessmen, and of course, the Kuwait Investment Authority. We participate in open and closed door discussions on topics ranging from the ‘Youth Imperative’ (ie addressing the 13 percent of the world’s youth that is unemployed – 30 percent in our region) to ‘Smart Cities as Innovation Hubs’; from ‘Climate Change’ to the ‘Future of the Digital Economy’.
As business leaders of our organizations, we’ve had the privilege of attending and participating in the WEF annual meeting, as well as the regional meeting for many years. It’s safe to say – this year was unlike any other. The overarching theme of populism and radical nationalism loomed over every discussion. President Donald Trump’s inauguration in the United States, Prime Minister Theresa May’s defiant speech (cementing Britain’s plan to leave the single market) and Marine Le Pen making traction in France were all topics of conversation.
During our many sessions, meetings and hallway conversations – a stark reality came to light: we didn’t meet a single person who believed Brexit is a good idea. We couldn’t find anyone who believed that a more protectionist America is good for the world – or even good for the American people. Not one person that thought populism would pave the way to a more prosperous future. Not one.
This represents quite a departure from what we’ve seen in the past – after all, when you gather leaders from around the world with varying perspectives, consensus is rare, let alone complete. Sure enough, the world – or at least those who represented the world at Davos – agree that this represents a massive paradigm shift on the global arena, and not for the better.
As Kuwaitis first and foremost, and global citizens secondly, it’s incumbent on us to recognize the value of globalism, and yes, the threat posed by populism and the associated rhetoric. Over the past decades, the creation of value has, in many cases, become exponential due to a more global world. Open markets create efficiency and opportunities; encourage competition and customer-centricity; and allow countries to specialize in ways that give them relevance and unity of purpose not afforded in the past.
The stakes for Kuwait are higher than most. We are traders, travelers and global citizens – a legacy that is recognized and celebrated. We have a seafaring heritage that goes back to the inception of our great nation, having traveled across the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. We are also a proud nation of immigrants, hailing from all locations of the Arabian Gulf. Yes, as a nation, Kuwait has been globalized far before the term was coined. That is who we are.
So what do we do in the face of this challenge? How do we go against the tide of populism, radical nationalism and protectionist ideologies? That’s the big question, asked time and time again during this year’s WEF annual meeting at Davos – and there is no clear answer. But what we can do, as Kuwaitis, is become ambassadors for globalization. Equip ourselves with the knowledge of how globalization has affected us as a force for sustainability and an unprecedented source of value creation. We can be who we’ve always been – the seafaring traders and travelers that welcomed the world in, with open arms.
By Bader N Al-Kharafi and Omar K Alghanim