Leading up to Davos, all the talk was about the notable absentees.
As high-profile delegates fell like dominoes, this year’s World Economic Forum looked in danger of becoming a damp squib.
But something has been here, and people have been trying hard to pretend it isn’t. It’s the elephant, or even elephants, in the room.
It’s a cliche that Davos is a talking shop, long on hot air and short on action. The circus around it has threatened to overtake the forum itself.
The heavily branded Promenade, more awash than ever with corporate pow-wow spaces, was heaving with cheery executives enjoying hospitality from breakfast to dinner and beyond.
The sense that Davos is a rich person’s playground was exacerbated this year by the presence of Uber. Order one and the only option available was the VIP service. Now more delegates could contemplate a world in which, according to one statistic here, almost 10 per cent of the world’s population is living on less than two dollars a day, from the back of a Mercedes S Class.
Davos has seen its way through global crises before. Big recessions, major conflicts and political upheaval are nothing new. Somehow, though, the problems circling the forum this year seemed bigger, more complex, and less solveable than before.
Absences notwithstanding, there were some big names present. Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro, was undoubtedly the headliner. The man dubbed the Donald Trump of the Tropics was a reminder of the populism rapidly encircling the globe.
Prince William and Sir David Attenborough discussed climate change and the plight of the natural world. But their conversation felt symptomatic of a wider issue: delegates seemed reduced to lamenting the state of the planet, rather than improving it.
The key UK players weren’t here to enlighten the forum about their Brexit plans. Philip Hammond was briefly in town, but he withdrew from his panel and headed home. In a way, it didn’t matter. Brexit is a problem only the British can tackle.
America remains locked in an increasingly acrimonious record-breaking shutdown. When secretary of state Mike Pompeo appeared on a big screen and said that everything was going fine, no one really believed him. But no one can do much about it either.
China’s deputy leader was in town, but nothing can happen in China without Xi Jinping’s approval.
It was as if Davos was stuck in aspic, unable to move anything along. Sure, the big topics were here, but the real discussions and – crucially – decisions were being had and made elsewhere.
Nevertheless, amid the inertia, positive themes did emerge. Businesses are clearly stepping into the space vacated by politicians. From human trafficking to housing, healthcare to the environment, companies appear sincere about making a difference.
Many of those same businesses were also trying hard to lift the pervading gloom. Last year in Davos we heard warnings about complacent optimism; this year, there were worries of an avalanche of pessimism.
Business has the wheel, Frans Van Houten of Philips told me. The message: the economy shouldn’t talk itself into driving off a cliff.
There were also glimmers of hope in unexpected places. Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, is preparing for crucial elections and – like many leaders – trying to reform his country’s economy.
Poroshenko told me that he was determined to resist the pull of populism. Then he admitted to a mistake. Back in 2014, when we last spoke, he had promised that he would reclaim Crimea for Ukraine in two months. Obviously, that didn’t happen. He held his hands up and admitted that had been wrong .
In a divided world of dogmatic positions and uncompromising policies, to hear a world leader admit fallibility was a breath of fresh air. A dose of that humility, injected into some other debates and political crises, could go a long way.