5 things to know about the World Economic Forum 2016

The global elites are in Davos, Switzerland, this week for the World Economic Forum (Jan 20-23).

Over 2,500 leaders from governments, the business world, international organisations, civil society, academia and the arts are attending the conference with the official theme "Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution".

Here are 5 things to know about the forum:

1. What is the World Economic Forum (WEF)?

Mr Klaus Schwab speaks on the eve of the opening of the World Economic Forum on Jan 19, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

The concept dates back to the early 1970s and is meant to take top business leaders away from their daily routines so that they can freely exchange ideas, and maybe do a deal or two. It was started by Professor Klaus Schwab who calls it "a platform for collaborative thinking and searching for solutions, not for making decisions".

Over the years, the annual event - traditionally held in the Swiss resort town of Davos - has evolved and now includes participants like politicians, activists from trade unions and campaign groups, social entrepreneurs, inventors and academics.

The event has also evolved into a year-round succession of regional forums in all parts of the globe, and a series of working groups bringing together key decision makers on global issues such as cyber security, global risks, and fighting corruption and poverty.

2. Who are the big names at the event?

(Left to right) Artist Olafur Eliasson, musician Will.i.am, Chinese actress Yao Chen and actor Leonardo DiCaprio pose with their Crystal Awards on Jan 19, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

More than 40 political leaders are at the meeting this year, including newly elected Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, US Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

The tech luminaries include Mr Jack Ma, head of China's online retail giant Alibaba, Mr Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Google's parent company; and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

There are also the captains of the financial industry, including head of JPMorgan Chase Jamie Dimon and Mr Gary Cohn, chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs, as well as central bank governors and financial regulators, including US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and International Monetary Fund Managing director Christine Lagarde.

And not forgetting the celebrities: Leonardo DiCaprio and musician will.i.am will be conferred the WEF Crystal awards for their work on tackling the climate crisis and education for the underserved respectively.

Pop icon Bono will also be on hand to mark the 10th anniversary of the (RED) campaign to fight Aids while actor Kevin Spacey, who plays a president in the hit TV series House Of Cards, will speak on "the theatricality of American politics in this election year".

3. What's on the agenda?

People gather for dinner on the eve of the opening of the 46th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum on Jan 19, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

The theme this year - "Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution" - sounds oddly out of tune with the pressing issues currently facing the world, and the various panels on the topic could prove to be little more than sideshows.

Countries are facing the darkest outlook since the financial crisis tipped the world into recession seven years ago. The Chinese slowdown and accompanying slide in the yuan are imperiling already sluggish international growth, oil is trading at its lowest level in more than a decade, stocks have suffered their worst January ever, and the prospects for corporate earnings are the most pessimistic in years.

Politics are no help, with tensions mounting in the Persian Gulf and on the Korean peninsula, Europe's refugee crisis showing no signs of abating, and terrorists striking four continents.

Economic frustrations have driven the rise of populists in the United States and France while sowing doubts about the longevity of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain's membership in the European Union.

With so many concerns weighing on the delegates, veteran attendee Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, said he expects vigorous discussion at Davos.

4. What's the expected outcome?

Don't expect any, say the organisers, because that's not the purpose of the forum. The objective is for participants to go away with new ideas, new connections, a better awareness of the world around them, and fresh ideas on how to tackle its problems.

5. What's the security like?

The landing runway seen through barbed wire at the military airport in Duebendorf, Switzerland, on Jan 19, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

The Swiss government has put in place a US$9 million (S$13 million) security programme for the forum. Davos is in a lockdown with 42km of fencing and watchtowers erected and a no-fly zone that prevents flights from coming within a 40km radius of the town without prior authorisation.

Heavy concrete barriers and watchtowers with armed guards line the roads, and the Swiss Air Force is conducting surveillance flights over the town using helicopters, prop planes and fighter jets.

Participants have to go through airport-level security screening that includes bag X-ray and metal detectors, and the military conducts background checks on everyone who attends the conference.