INTERVIEW: World Economic Forum brings a touch of Davos to Saudi Arabia

(Illustration by Luis Grañena)
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Updated 17 February 2020

INTERVIEW: World Economic Forum brings a touch of Davos to Saudi Arabia

  • Based on the 2030 strategy in Saudi Arabia, there are a lot of trailblazers in innovation and technology

Børge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum (WEF), brought a little flavor of Davos to Saudi Arabia last week. And it was not just that the overnight temperature in the Saudi capital fell to a low of 2 degrees Celsius — only marginally warmer than the Swiss town that hosted the annual gathering of the global elite last month.

It was also the buzz in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel in Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, which will be the venue for the first-ever regional meeting of WEF to be held in Saudi Arabia. All that was missing was the clatter of snow spikes and the tinkle of Alpine cow bells.

“I’ve brought Davos weather with me,” said the 54-year-old Norwegian, who has been WEF president since 2017, after a ministerial-level career in his country’s government, including a stint as foreign minister. Brende was leading the WEF advance party tasked with agreeing the final details of the meeting, scheduled to be held in early April with around 600 official delegates and speakers as well as a substantial entourage of aides, observers and media.

It will be a big event in what promises to be a busy year for the Kingdom, which will culminate in the G20 Summit of global leaders in November. Preparations for that event — the first time a G20 Summit has been held in the Middle East — are well underway, and the WEF meeting could be seen as an essential trial run for the G20 extravaganza.

The decision to stage the event in Saudi Arabia was announced at a plenary session that Brende moderated with some of the leading policymakers from the Kingdom at Davos in January. Why was Riyadh chosen this time for an event that the WEF has previously staged in Jordan, Egypt and the UAE?

“Saudi Arabia is the first country in the Arab world to hold the G20 presidency, so that merits a lot of focus this year,” Brende said. “We also know that Saudi Arabia is the largest economy in the region, and among our members and partners there’s a lot of interest now to see how the G20 agenda can also reflect the industrial changes we’re faced with through the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

That concept — abbreviated to 4IR — has been pioneered by WEF founder Klaus Schwab to describe the huge technology-driven changes underway in the global economy and society as information technology and digital communications come together to affect the lives of everyone on the planet.

Technological innovation has been eagerly embraced by the Kingdom’s policymakers as part of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify its economy away from oil dependency and boost the job-creating potential of the private sector.

Brende suggests there is a challenge of perceptions with regard to rapid economic change in the region. “In the Middle East, you’re faced with two kinds of realities at the same time. It’s one of the youngest populations in the world, and there’s a lot of innovation underway — entrepreneurship and startups. But at the same time there are a lot of conflicts and proxy wars going on in the region,” he said.

“So there are two realities, but we’ll focus mainly on the opportunities. For example, we’ll have 50 startups from the Middle East attending the Riyadh meeting. We want to showcase the silver linings that are there and all the dynamic startups in the region,” he added.

“One of the challenges is that a lot of the media focus on the region is on polarization and proxy conflicts, but we’d also like to underline that based on the 2030 strategy in Saudi Arabia, there are a lot of interesting trailblazers in innovation and technology.”


BORN: Norway, 1965

EDUCATION: Norwegian University of Science and Technology


  • Member of Norwegian Parliament
  • Environment minister
  • Trade and industry minister
  • Foreign minister
  • Secretary-general, Norwegian Red Cross
  • President, World Economic Forum

WEF is not primarily a peace-making or conflict-resolution forum, but its mission statement — “committed to improving the state of the world” — implies an interest in bringing opponents together in some kind of reconciliation. Does Brende see any possibility of resolution to some of the region’s apparently intractable antagonisms from the April meeting?

“I hope that there will be enhanced dialogue in the region, and also with all the young people coming — global shapers and leaders, the startups — there will be inspiration to other countries that will be participating. There are so many opportunities in the region that aren’t sufficiently capitalized on,” he said.

However, Brende does not believe that Iran will be present at the event. “There’s no plan currently to have Iran in Saudi Arabia,” he said. Israel is also unlikely to attend. Brende does not anticipate any problem with Qatari involvement in the meeting, despite the continuing standoff with the Kingdom. “I’ve seen that there are initiatives to improve the relationship with Qatar, and will be discussing that while I’m here,” he said.

Big delegations are expected from all G20 members, with strong participation from European, North American and Asian countries. They will gather at a crucial time for the global economy. “We’re facing a situation of slowing growth, so there has to be a real strategy on how to avoid recession. We think that technology investment is a good way to increase future competitiveness,” Brende said.

But he expressed about the economic implications of the coronavirus outbreak in China, which is certain to impact growth and — significantly for the Kingdom — will reduce demand for oil. “China, the second-largest economy in the world, is growing at the lowest rate of growth for 30 years, and is also struggling with the coronavirus. We at WEF are vigilant and following the situation,” Brende added. 

The meeting will focus on six main “platforms,” each of which has big implications for Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Employment, training and skills; financial inclusion; energy transformation; urbanization and smart cities; environmental issues; and the growth-enhancing potential of the 4IR.

“As one of the youngest regions in the world, millions of new jobs have to be created every year, and that’s a question of addressing the huge skill gap which exists. We’re trying to do this via the skills ‘accelerator’ that the forum has launched,” Brende said.

“We’re looking at a billion new and reskilled jobs by 2030 in cooperation with the private sector, and we’re also setting up a center for the 4IR in Riyadh. The new technologies give the opportunity for many countries that were maybe not the winners of previous industrial revolutions to leapfrog in development.” G20 education ministers will be form a large contingent at the MENA meeting to address these issues, Brende said.

Energy will be a major item on the April agenda. It will discuss what policies are needed to ensure that the transition from fossil fuels does not impact the macroeconomic environment of countries, such as Saudi Arabia and others in the Arabian Gulf, that still depend on hydrocarbons. 

It will also examine the sensitive issue of government subsidies. Along with other regional economies with a big public sector, Saudi Arabia has sought to pare back subsidies in energy, water and food. The WEF meeting in Riyadh will debate what safety nets need to be in place to ensure that vulnerable segments of populations remain protected.

Brende welcomes the relaxation of travel restrictions in the Kingdom, such as the introduction of electronic visas, and hopes to see a big female involvement in the April meeting.

The Davos annual meeting has been criticized in the past for the comparatively low level of women attending as delegates, with some 24 percent at last January’s event. “That’s about the same level as in government and private business, but we’d like to have gender parity. If we can get better than that in Riyadh, it would be great,” he said.

Senior policymakers in the Kingdom have given the event their “full endorsement,” he added, and while in Saudi Arabia he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “We want to underline that the 4IR is a huge opportunity, not a threat, for the Middle East. The region has shown it can deal with conflict and still achieve economic growth. It’s resilient. We hope the meeting will underline how the visions of growth and inclusion win out over conflict and polarization,” Brende said.

INTERVIEW: Humanity is not handling coronavirus pandemic very well, says health care investment chief Helmut Schuehsler

Updated 07 June 2020

INTERVIEW: Humanity is not handling coronavirus pandemic very well, says health care investment chief Helmut Schuehsler

  • Head of TVM Capital on the challenges and opportunities, successes and failures, of the COVID-19 crisis

Helmut Schuehsler has had what you might call a pretty challenging time of late — and it is by no means over.

He runs the health-care investment firm TVM Capital Healthcare from Dubai, at a time when the reputation of the medical business is being called into question due to the scandal over NMC Healthcare. The UAE’s biggest provider has gone bust with more than $4 billion in unaccounted debt.

Schuehsler operates in the private equity investment sphere, which itself is facing bigger issues than ever before, especially in health care and more so in Dubai, after the 2018 collapse of Abraaj Group, once the private equity flagship in emerging markets.

And there is the small issue of the most significant health challenge humanity has faced in over a century — the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed the economic fundamentals of the medical industry beyond recognition in the space of a few months.

“Things are coming apart,” Schuehsler told Arab News on a Zoom call from his house on the Palm, Jumeirah, where he has been self-isolating for the past three months, apart from a couple of visits to the doctor.

He was referring to the global medical infrastructure and specifically to the problems with the World Health Organization (WHO), rather than the TVM business, for which he still sees big opportunities in South East Asia and the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.

As a professional investor with more than 30 years’ experience in health care, he holds firm views on the way the international community has responded to the pandemic crisis.

“Humanity is not handling this very well. We should have had a strengthening of the WHO. It is irrational to destroy international cooperation in the face of an international challenge. We’re doing things in a very myopic way,” he said.

He uses the term “titration” to describe the policy response of lockdown followed by reopening and, sometimes, reimposition of curfews and travel bans. Titration is a chemical process in which two compounds are mixed together in varying quantities until they neutralize each other.

“It is a case of titrating openness against social distancing. In the beginning, it was all about not overwhelming the capacity of intensive care units to ensure people had access to beds. Now, we are managing better. The public and private sector have made room for that. The first phase of the response — providing critical health care and devices — is coming together,” Schuehsler said.

“Now you’ll see a gradual reopening and closing, again and again. The danger of an exponential growth in infection rates does not go away. If people stop social distancing and we have demonstrations and concerts with thousands of people, it will go exponential tomorrow,” he explained.

He sees some cause for optimism in the work of the pharmaceutical industry — in which TVM has been a big investor over decades — to first develop effective therapeutics and, finally, a vaccine.


BORN: Vienna, 1959

EDUCATION: PhD in social and economic sciences, business administration, Vienna University of Economic and Business


  • Investment manager, Horizonte Venture Management, Vienna
  • Managing partner, TVM Capital, Munich, Germany

  • Chairman and CEO, TVM Capital Healthcare, Dubai

“I think that by the end of this year there will be between two and five drugs that will gain emergency approvals for marketing in Western Europe. That does not mean they will be available worldwide, but availability will be just around the corner, depending on manufacturing times and how long it takes to set up distribution systems. These will prevent people from becoming so sick that they have to go to hospital,” he said.

On the possibility of a vaccine, Schuehsler believes there could be something available by the end of next year. He does not like talk of a “silver bullet” to take out the virus, however, partly due to the long development and processes of testing and approval necessary for vaccines, and partly because of a growing sentiment worldwide against vaccines.

“It’s only a silver bullet if people are actually using it, and we all know there is a growing resistance movement against vaccines, which is unfounded and which endangers people, especially children. If we want to see our children dying again from polio or measles or chicken pox, we should stop vaccinating them,” he said.

The overall response by regional authorities in UAE and Saudi Arabia has been “OK,” he said, especially considering the distraction caused by the volatility in global oil markets.

“The confluence of those two elements — oil and the virus — has caused a difficult situation for governments. They have to spend a tremendous amount in terms of getting their pandemic response up and running,” he said.

Schuehsler was a pioneer of the biotech investment business in Germany, with a network of investors in Europe and the US, before looking at the growing health-care market in the Middle East in 2009.

Now, TVM is also expanding in South East Asia, a region Schuehsler sees as having great potential in the post-pandemic world.

The pandemic will change the way he does business. In the UAE, with its sizeable expatriate populations, some medical services will change as people leave; others have already gone through a period of contraction during the most intense phase of the COVID-19 crisis.

Fertility treatment, for example, via the Bourn Hall clinic in Dubai, saw a sharp decline in business in April, Schuehsler said, though that has recovered “a bit” last month.

About four years ago, he began to look at Saudi Arabia, the biggest health market in the Middle East. The growth there has been patient and deliberate.

“Saudi Arabia is a much larger market, with different economics and setups, but we consider it to be a very attractive area. The country is the focus point of the Middle East.

“You need to believe certain things when it comes to Saudi Arabia. For example, that the Vision 2030, the opening up and diversification of the economy, will still happen even despite the COVID-19 and oil crises. You have to believe that they will stay the course and that things have been simply delayed and not indefinitely postponed. But we are making that assumption,” he added.

TVM does not invest in hospital chains, but rather in more specialist medical businesses: Long-term acute care, home care and disease management, ventilated care, fertility and reproductive treatment, and the manufacture of medical devices via an Egyptian subsidiary.

Schuehsler has expanded from the UAE to the Kingdom via the Manzil Healthcare Services brand in Riyadh and the Cambridge Medical business in Dhahran. The medical devices business recently signed a partnership deal with the well-known Olayan Group to expand distribution in the Kingdom.

He believes there are still opportunities to invest despite the crisis but warns that the investment outlook has changed.

“Deal making is less clear to me. For an investor, this is not a particularly great time because none of us can predict the future. If you look at a company that has lost half its business and you think you can do great deal, then maybe,” he said.

Timing of investment decisions takes on critical importance, he added.

There is also potential in introducing investors from the US and Germany to Saudi partners. 

“There are a lot of German companies that have good connections in Saudi Arabia, and Saudis appreciate German technology and products. There have been many contacts made with the Saudi government and health-care industry. We can help investors from Germany because we have excellent relationships in the Kingdom,” he said.

During his career, Schuehsler has raised more than $1 billion in committed capital from global investors, overseen 120 investments in the health industry, and been involved in more than 80 major transactions over the years, including the lucrative sale of his ProVita International business to NMC in 2015.

He understands the concerns of investors, employees and patients in the health business and how to avoid the pitfalls that have bedeviled health care and private equity recently in the Middle East.

“TVM has all the transparency and governance you could want. We run our business in the Middle East in the exactly same way we would have run it if we’d been in Boston or Munich,” he said.

“I think people look at private equity and health care with suspicion because so many bad things have happened. We get caught in this, but we are the most internationally minded player in the way we build partnerships, the way we compensate people, the way we run our board meetings in portfolio companies.

“That’s what I’m trying to put in place: Openness, transparency and compliance in the markets we invest in. That’s our contribution to broader society,” he added.