Building an International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation

Despite War and a Coup

The World Economic Forum decided to go ahead with the Annual Meeting despite the heavy costs for reinforced security.


In August 1990, Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait. This prompted the US to deploy troops to Saudi Arabia and the United Nations to demand that Iraq withdraw. On 16 January 1991, two weeks before the Annual Meeting, a US-led coalition launched Operation Desert Storm to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.

About 18% of participants decided not to go to Davos. Most of those who cancelled were from outside Europe since many US corporations had imposed a ban on business travel. From the White House, US President George H. W. Bush delivered a special message to the participants in Davos, outlining the “immense challenges and opportunities” ahead.

As in previous years, Davos served again as a valuable platform for “newcomers” to the global scene. Among them was the Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, Valentin Pavlov, who delivered a special message calling for cooperation between his country and the West. In August, Pavlov would be among the Soviet leaders who would try to remove President Mikhail Gorbachev from power. The coup attempt failed, though it heralded the eventual collapse of the USSR.

Before the putsch, the Forum had scheduled its first regional meeting in Moscow in partnership with the League of Scientific and Industrial Associations of the USSR, which was led by Arkady Volsky. He pulled out at the last moment and urged the Forum to postpone the meeting. But the Forum was determined to proceed.

In September, just 10 days after the unsuccessful coup, participants arrived, fully aware that they were in the Soviet capital at a momentous time. The meeting opened only hours after the Soviet Congress of Peoples’ Deputies had created new organs of government and handed power to the republics. A stream of the struggling nation’s economic and political figures crossed the street to address participants at the Forum meeting in the elegant Hotel Metropol.

Anatoly Sobchak, the Mayor of St Petersburg (which had just dropped its Soviet-era name, Leningrad), who had faced down the anti-Gorbachev opposition in his city following the coup, opened the meeting. He concluded that the coup attempt had been the final death knell of the Communist Party. For the first time, he noted, people were prepared to defend the Constitution and the rule of law.

At the end of the meeting, the participating business leaders drafted a letter to newly elected Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin, who had emerged as a heroic figure when he stood on a tank in opposition to the coup. On behalf of the participants, Klaus Schwab signed the six-page document, which contained a 12-point transformation plan for a nation that appeared to be crumbling.

Recognizing the significance of arts and culture in fostering global understanding, Schwab launched the World Arts Forum as a parallel platform to the World Economic Forum. Virtuoso violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin provided valuable advice for organizing the event.

The Forum would later integrate the Arts Forum into the Annual Meeting and other events. But it has continued to engage the arts community and considers cultural leaders to be an important part of its stakeholder approach.

In 1995, the Forum created the Crystal Award to honour personalities who, in addition to having made a difference in the arts world, had also contributed to cross-cultural understanding or benefited society. Among the recipients: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Amitabh Bachchan, Paulo Coelho, Umberto Eco, Matt Damon, Peter Gabriel, Richard Gere, Valery Gergiev, Gilberto Gil, Nadine Gordimer, Quincy Jones, James Levine, Jet Li, Yo-Yo Ma, Wole Soyinka, Charlize Theron and Elie Wiesel.