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Fear of future evident as global elite gather in Davos

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND The global economy is in better shape than it has been in years.

Stock markets are booming, oil prices are on the rise again and the risks of a rapid economic slowdown in China, a major source of concern a year ago, have eased.

And yet, as political leaders, CEOs and top bankers make their annual trek up the Swiss Alps to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, the mood is anything but celebratory.

Beneath the veneer of optimism over the economic outlook lurks acute anxiety about an increasingly toxic political climate and a deep sense of uncertainty surrounding the US presidency of Donald Trump, who will be inaugurated on the final day of the forum on Friday.

Last year, the consensus here was that Mr Trump had no chance of being elected.

His victory, less than half a year after Britain voted to leave the European Union, was a slap at the principles that elites in Davos have long held dear, from globalisation and free trade to multi-lateralism.

With elections looming in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy this year, the nervousness among Davos attendees is palpable.

"Regardless of how you view Mr Trump and his positions, his election has led to a deep, deep sense of uncertainty and that will cast a long shadow over Davos," said Mr Jean-Marie Guehenno, CEO of International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think-tank.

Mr Moises Naim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was more blunt.

DON'T KNOW, DON'T 
KNOW HOW

He said: "There is a consensus that something huge is going on, global and in many respects unprecedented. But we don't know what the causes are, nor how to deal with them."

The titles of the discussion panels at the WEF, which will run from tomorrow to Friday, evoke the unsettling new landscape.

Among them are Squeezed and Angry: How to Fix the Middle Class Crisis, Politics of Fear or Rebellion of the Forgotten?, Tolerance at the Tipping Point?, and The Post-EU Era.

The list of leaders attending this year is also telling.

The star attraction will be Mr Xi Jinping, the first Chinese president ever to attend Davos.

Perhaps the central question in Davos, a four-day affair of panel discussions, lunches and cocktail parties that delve into subjects from terrorism to artificial intelligence to wellness, is whether leaders can agree on the root causes of public anger and begin to articulate a response.

A WEF report on global risks released before Davos highlighted "diminishing public trust in institutions" and noted that rebuilding faith in the political process and leaders would be a "difficult task".

Mr Suma Chakrabarti, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, believes a "modern version of globalisation" is possible but acknowledges it will take time to emerge.

He said: "It is going to be a long haul in persuading a lot of people that there is a different approach.

"But you don't have to throw the baby out with the bath water."- REUTERS

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