Summer Davos: Growing ties between China and the Mideast

An integral part of the Age of Convergence is the revival of the New Silk Road

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Beijing Capital International Airport is of remarkable size and is one of the world’s busiest airports with over 83 million passengers passing through it in 2013. But what is most remarkable about the airport is a small feedback polling unit that is attached to each of the immigration booths. After the Chinese immigration officer has processed the foreign visitor’s visa, the polling unit starts flashing, requesting a rating on a scale of one to five on the visitor’s experience with the immigration process, from “Greatly Satisfied” to “Extremely Poor”, in English, with accompanying smiley to frowning faces.

Steven Levitt, the economist and co-author of “Freakonomics”, said that gaining feedback and incentivizing are some of the most effective ways to be more successful, and the People’s Republic seems to be among the first countries to use such a unit at their airports, which some might find surprising. In fact, this is a prime example of technological convergence and of how the world’s economic center of gravity is shifting eastwards, an era which can be described as the Age of Convergence.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has held its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, since 1971. In 2007, it began to convene Summer Davos in China, hosting the Annual Meeting of the New Champions (AMNC) in the northern metropolis city of Tianjin each year. Summer Davos is the foremost global gathering on science, technology and innovation, and last month 1,900 participants from more than 90 countries gathered under the theme of “Creating Value through Innovation.” Li Keqiang, the Premier of the People’s Republic, inaugurated the conference. He consistently focused on the theme of innovation in his speech, but also reiterated his commitment to be open to foreign investment.

“We now live in an era defined by deepening economic globalization, with countries increasingly depending on one another in interests and sharing their destinies closely,” Li said in his speech. “The world needs China, and China needs the world.”

Those needs were apparent with the recent milestone IPO of a company with a uniquely Arab name but with an origin further eastwards. In an example of technological convergence, the biggest initial public offering (IPO) in history took place on September 19, when the Chinese e-commerce facilitation website Alibaba.com, which controls 80 percent of online commerce in China, listed on the New York Stock Exchange. By the end of the first day of trading, Alibaba.com was valued at US $231 billion, more than Facebook or Amazon and eBay combined. Its CEO, Jack Ma, now China’s richest man, founded Alibaba.com from his one-bedroom apartment in Hangzhou, and three years later was chosen as a Young Global Leader (YGL) by WEF.

The close strategic proximity of the Middle East was recognized at Summer Davos with cultural diplomacy from the People’s Republic in full force, especially as the likes of Saudi Aramco and SABIC sent their most senior delegations. Demonstrating cultural convergence, directly outside the entrance to the Plenary Hall at the Tianjin Meijiang Conference Center, where the summit was held, the People’s Republic and WEF had arranged Muslim prayer rooms. In its departure terminal, the Beijing Capital International Airport had an official photography exhibition on display titled “Arabia through Chinese Eyes”, showcasing photographs of the Arab world by Chinese photographers. Just as importantly, such cultural awareness demonstrated another vital pillar of this Age of Convergence – the need for open, transparent and constructive dialogue. Communications, whether through smoke or silicon, remains at the center of everything we do.

An integral part of the Age of Convergence is the revival of the New Silk Road, where all the cross-border hyper-transfer of capital, be it financial, human, cultural or intellectual, is rapidly increasing. According to global management consultancy McKinsey & Company, total trade flows between China and the Middle East could climb to $500 billion by 2020, with China seen by The Economist Intelligence Unit as becoming the GCC’s most important economic partner by then. The Middle East sits strategically next to Africa, whose largest trading partner is China, allowing the new Silk Road to extend westwards.

With foresight in mind, the younger delegates in Tianjin discussed a challenge which their generation has not only grown up with, but will soon have the challenge of bearing. In 2000, the then-Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, convened the Millennium Summit in New York, with more heads of state in one place than ever before in history, seeking to promote a new role for the UN as the world’s development broker.

All UN member states committed to achieve eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 with the first goal focused on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. With a year remaining before the MDG deadline, new impetus has been set in motion to discuss a post-MDG world. In September 2013, world leaders met at the UN to agree to set Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with 2030 the new milestone date in mind and “Leaving No One Behind” as the main theme.

Despite being apocryphal, the Chinese proverb “May you live in interesting times” has found wide currency in Western culture and now bears some truth: we do indeed live in interesting times. Times when businessmen from around the world flock to China for Summer Davos, when the largest listing of a public company in the US is Chinese and when the new Silk Road to the Middle East is being revived and extended to Africa. As these seismic economic shifts occur, there are increasing expectations that there will be positive socio-economic consequences in the area of global sustainable development. For many, the post-2015 SDGs are a second chance for the world to ensure that no one is actually left behind, that extreme poverty and hunger are genuinely eradicated in what is possibly the final frontier in the Age of Convergence. Dialogue and discussion are at the heart of this: the feedback units at Beijing Airport are more than a mere gimmick.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on October 21, 2014.


Talal Malik is the Chairman and CEO of Alpha1Corp, a trusted adviser to some of the world's top government and business leaders and a dedicated humanitarian.