Davos on Tour in Istanbul

Erdogan and Abbas headlined the regional World Economic Forum. But as in Davos, the real conference wasn't broadcast.

The arrival of the World Economic Forum in Istanbul this week was overshadowed in the Turkish media by the arrival of Madonna and her entourage, although there was a symmetry in events—massive security, caravans of expensive cars with tinted windows, snarled traffic and cab drivers cursing them all. Tagging behind the Material Girl was her twenty-four-year-old lover, Brahim Zaibat; tagging behind Turkey’s mercurial prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. In both cases, the pair looked every inch the happy couple.

In 2009, Erdogan stalked out of Davos in a rage—“For me Davos is no more. I will not come to Davos ever again,” he said after accusing the moderator of giving him less time to speak than the Israeli president. But he never said he wouldn’t return to the World Economic Forum per se, just to Davos. If the mountain were to come to Mohammed, however, that would be fine. The forum usually holds its Middle East summit in Egypt, Jordan or Morocco, but we all know what’s happening there, so persuading the delegates to come to Istanbul instead—glorious as always in the springtime—was perhaps not a hard sell.

With the U.S. economy in the tank, the euro zone collapsing and the repercussions of the Arab Spring rumbling ominously through neighboring regions, Erdogan took advantage of his keynote address to reflect upon the most pressing of the world’s economic problems: Palestine. He then accused the developed nations of miserliness: the large economies of the world, he charged, were failing to help the poor ones. Not Turkey, though. “Ten years ago we used to be a country that took, rather than gave. Now we are feeling the joy of giving to other countries as well.”

Erdogan sentimentally concluded in the we-are-the-world spirit: the world, he said, was yearning for love. What’s more—and this is the notable part—“There should be important steps taken to achieve this love.” (Given that this is Erdogan we’re talking about, one may expect him to announce a bill to criminalize lovelessness.)

Initial theatrics aside, it was an ambitious forum. Treating Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East—the largest geographical area the WEF has to date pulled together—the meeting was held with the support of the Turkish government and prominent Turkish business figures. You get what you pay for, so the overarching theme was Turkey and its role in “Bridging Regions in Transformation.”

Turkey’s critical geographic location seemed to be important news to many of the conference goers, although I’m not sure why; even a cursory glance at the in-flight magazine would show that indeed, Turkey is in the middle of everything. But the “bridging” theme seemed to have surfaced from conference notes of yesteryear; as everyone who lives here knows, Turkey’s former foreign policy—“zero problems with its neighbors”—has been recast as “zero neighbors without problems.” Turkey is now barely on speaking terms with its neighbors, although its leadership is hardly to be faulted for this: Turkey does have neighbors from hell.

Speed Dating

The subthemes of the conference were the usual pabulum one finds at conferences: "Harnessing technology and social change;" "Rising to the growth and employment challenge;" "Shaping the new governance landscape" and the like. But that’s not really the point of these events. The point, as many were keen to tell me, is the networking, especially with the people who award government contracts and tenders. To that end, Tunisian interim prime minister Hamadi Jebali was in attendance, along with heads of state and government from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Jordan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Ukraine, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Republic of Tatarstan. Face time with them is what it’s all about—and unsurprisingly, panels concerning energy pipelines connecting the larger region to Europe were of particular interest.

Oddly, the Egyptians, whom we are often told have the most to learn from Turkey’s model, were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they were overscheduled. Jordanian prime minister Fayez Tarawneh was there, however, and assured the audience that there was nothing to worry about in Jordan, thanks to its “inclusive and tolerant existing political sphere”—this despite the “regional upheavals, armed conflicts, increase in energy prices, population movements, and most recently the disruption of Egyptian gas supply to Jordan.”

It was hardly surprising that security at the conference was tight. Oddly, though, I could walk freely—and without any kind of identification—into the “networking area,” where all of the most tempting terrorist targets were busy networking their brains out.

Not networking at all was Nabil Aburdeineh, Abbas’s political adviser and spokesman. I asked if I could sit at his table. I didn’t realize who he was. He shrugged and said “sure.” When he introduced himself, I said that he must be pleased that Abbas had received star billing, speaking directly after Erdogan. He shrugged again. “Usually we don’t go anywhere unless we’re number one on the stage.”

“Really?” I said. “Number one?

“We’re Palestine. We’re not Costa Rica.”