The World Economic Forum has outed itself as anti-Palestinian

Khaled al-Sabawi

Mondoweiss  /  March 1, 2023

The World Economic Forum makes no qualms about showing solidarity for the people of Ukraine and condemning Russia, but when it comes to condemning Israeli crimes, it insists on remaining impartial.

Every year the World Economic Forum (WEF) gathers the world’s elite in Davos under sweeping virtuous slogans such as “improving the state of the world.” Yet no one has stopped to question who exactly is included in the WEF’s definition of “the world”? Well, I did. And the answer does not include Palestinians. It may also not include anyone that isn’t white. 

In 2015, I accepted a nomination to the Forum of Young Global Leaders (YGL), a community within WEF created by its Founder and Chairman, Klaus Schwab. Although I grew up in Canada, I am the son of Palestinian refugees from Gaza. I was supposedly accepted as a Palestinian YGL for my entrepreneurship in the occupied Palestinian territory. Although the WEF’s elitism does not hold much credibility with marginalized communities, I was urged that change can come from within. After all, how often do leaders of the world meet Palestinian entrepreneurs? 

In May 2021 when Israel launched destructive airstrikes against the Gaza Strip, I felt responsible to raise the issue in such a global forum. Other YGLs felt precisely the same. Palestinians, after all, are amongst the most marginalized and underprivileged people in the world, and leading human rights organizations have concluded that our entire people live under a system of Israeli apartheid.

We drafted an open letter addressed to Schwab requesting that he condemn Israel’s aggression and human rights violations and stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. We invited WEF stakeholders to sign it, and within a few weeks 1,196 signed our open letter – an unprecedented act that demonstrated a potential for real change within the WEF.

Within one day of receiving our letter, Schwab swiftly replied: “the statement you ask for would undermine the purpose and the role of an impartial organization.”

We asserted that one cannot be impartial to human rights abuses for as Paulo Freire famously said “washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

One week later Mr. Schwab published an article as a direct response to our letter, arguing that the WEF can better improve the world by being an “impartial and independent broker.” Although we were pained by Schwab’s refusal, we acknowledged the limitations set by the WEF’s statutes. 

Then, less than one year later, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the WEF issued a public statement signed by Schwab himself condemning Russia’s aggression and standing in full solidarity with the Ukrainian people. While this was an important act of solidarity, it made us feel that we were not equal members of the WEF community.

Immediately, a group of 29 YGLs signed an email addressed to Schwab sent from my account thanking him for his position while expressing our hurt by WEF’s double standard. We expressed that we are “increasingly convinced that we are token people of color and that the values of equality and inclusivity espoused by the WEF are but a facade.” 

The truth is that since the WEF’s establishment in 1971, invasions have been conducted against marginalized POCs worldwide and the WEF conveniently hid behind its banner of impartiality. But when the first white European society is invaded, the WEF takes a stance. This double standard on the grounds of race is simply unacceptable. 

Now, you’d think a forum ostensibly dedicated to dialogue would convene their team and have an open dialogue with us. The exact opposite. The WEF exhibited behavior typical of organizations run by white men in power who are used to enjoying impunity: tone policing, racist intimidation, and scandalizing. Within hours of receiving our email, Schwab replied dismissively that he feels “insulted” by our words – tone policing – and doubled down on asserting that Ukraine is a “special case”. The next day I received a highly ill-tempered email from Schwab designed to intimidate me: he threatened to disband the entire YGL community as he did with a previous version of the same community. Schwab accused me of “maliciously racist accusations.” We merely pointed out a double standard on grounds of race. His reaction is known as scandalizing – when a POC points out racism and their comment is scandalously inverted to shift focus away from the racism. Finally, Schwab’s reaction signifies what is known as default skepticism and an empathy gap – when racially privileged white people are socialized to meet the words of a POC with skeptical defense and therefore have less empathy.

A few months later, I received a letter indefinitely suspending my membership. My request for the reasons for my suspension and an appeal has gone completely ignored. So much for the values of “stakeholder capitalism” and “cooperation in a fragmented world” that WEF publicly espouses. More like racism, abuse of power, and lack of transparency. A source in the WEF tells me that some YGLs are informants leaking private communications directly to the WEF’s leadership. Feels more like an authoritarian regime that spies on its constituency and loathes free speech than a global forum. As for my former YGLs, only a handful of true leaders actually protested my suspension. The silence of the remaining supposed “young global leaders” was deafening, but in retrospect, I realize that their silence is expressive of the exact type of Machiavellian leadership that the WEF seeks to foster.

In their act of silencing me as a person of color, the WEF has revealed its own true color: white, and that WEF actually stands for White Economic Forum. It has also revealed that its virtuous declarations around diversity and inclusivity are mere slogan pedaling. But Confucius warned us long ago that “goodie goodies are the thieves of virtue” for those who make public declarations of virtue are often the ones who do not embody it. My personal experience reveals that the WEF’s must-save-the-world attitude has dangerous effects whether intended or not: (1) it serves to lure POCs from marginalized communities into a network of mainly Machiavellian opportunists and careerists which incentives them to remain silent about the suffering and injustices that their people must contend in exchange for access to privilege and power and (2) it enables the WEF to appear more inclusive and diverse while it practices a double standard on grounds of race. 

Silencing a POC for pointing out such a double standard is in itself an admission of guilt and an act of racism. It further demonstrates that the WEF does not have the interest of all stakeholders in the world. If something positive may arise from my experience, it is that POCs in the WEF community question their membership and seriously reflect on the possibility that the WEF is luring them by offering the illusion of access to power so they place their self-interest above that of their community. It is clear as day that organizations like the WEF cannot be changed from within, they can only be changed from without by pushing for democratization, representation, transparency, and accountability. Beware of public declarations of virtue coming from centers of power and privilege for the devil hears them coming.

Khaled al-Sabawi is a serial entrepreneur. He is Vice Chairman & CEO of Union Construction & Investment, Co-Founder of TABO Palestine, and Co-Founder & CEO of Open Screenplay