When Khaled Sabawi was invited in 2015 to join the Young Global Leaders (YGL), a network set up by the World Economic Forum head Klaus Schwab, he was reluctant to accept.
“I was sceptical of the WEF’s elitism, but accepted when I was told that the aim of YGL was to drive positive change in the world” Sabawi told Al Jazeera.
The son of Palestinian refugees from Gaza, now in Toronto, Sabawi’s invite to the exclusive organisation, where membership is reserved for “exceptional people”, had come off the back of his founding of TABO, an initiative dedicated to expanding property rights in Palestine, and his Toronto-based company with offices in Gaza, Open Screenplay, which aims to help diverse screenwriters start their careers.
That recognition was a big deal; YGL’s ties to the WEF meant access to some of the world’s biggest names and invitations to the WEF’s annual summit which is being held this week in Davos, Switzerland.
However, in September of last year, Al Sabawi was suspended indefinitely from the YGL community.
Al Sabawi believes the suspension was retribution for a letter he and other YGL members had sent to Schwab, accusing the WEF of being silent on Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territory at the same time that it was expressing solidarity with Ukraine after Russia’s invasion of the country.
“While we profoundly support your public statement in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, we cannot help but also feel immensely hurt that the WEF is selective when it comes to morality and solidarity based on nationality,” the letter, sent in March, said.
According to emails shown to Al Jazeera by Al Sabawi, Schwab responded angrily, saying Ukraine was a “special case” and that the content of the letter was “deeply insulting” and “offensive”. He threatened to dissolve the YGL.
However, Wadia Ait Hamza, the Head of the Forum of Young Global Leaders, while not disputing the contents of the emails, denied that Al Sabawi was suspended because of the letter sent to Schwab.
“When a young leader joins the YGL community, membership means they automatically adhere to the Community Charter and Code of Conduct,” Ait Hamza said. “Failing to adhere to this can result in suspension. Khaled [Al] Sabawi’s membership of Young Global Leaders was suspended indefinitely in September 2022.”
Ait Hamza refused to specify the reason for Al Sabawi’s suspension, but said that any implication that it was related to his political stance was “completely unfounded”.
Neutral on Palestine, sympathy for Ukraine
The dispute between Schwab and the YGL members had begun earlier, in the summer of 2021, during Israel’s war on Gaza. At least 260 Palestinians were killed in that assault, including more than 60 children.
At the time, Al Sabawi and a number of other YGL members wrote an initial letter to WEF and Schwab, in which they called on the organisation to denounce Israel for its actions in Gaza.
“As members of the Young Global Leaders (YGL) and Global Shapers community, we are proud to represent and further the values espoused by the World Economic Forum and answer your call for responsible leadership,” the letter said.
“Today, we feel these values are being tested by our collective silence as a community vis-à-vis the atrocities and violence being committed by Israel against the Palestinian people.”
For Al Sabawi, the war in Gaza was personal. Beyond being a Palestinian from Gaza, he says, his company Open Screenplay’s office in the blockaded territory was bombed, resulting in four deaths and leaving employees traumatised.
“Israel’s airstrikes impacted Schwab’s very own YGL members,” Al Sabawi told Al Jazeera. “We were traumatised beyond belief and outraged by the indiscriminate attacks. Myself and over a thousand YGL and WEF stakeholders believed Schwab must take a stand.”
However, in response to their plea, Schwab wrote an article on the WEF website highlighting that the organisation needed to remain neutral.
“Impartiality and neutrality are enshrined in our charter as an international organization. We also built it into all our governance rules, allowing people to associate with the Forum independent of their race, nationality, gender or political conviction, knowing that the purpose of the Forum is to improve the state of the world through dialogue and action-oriented collaboration,” the article said.
Schwab backtracked on that position when, along with the WEF, he issued a statement in February 2022, condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
“When the WEF took a clear stand against the invasion of Ukraine, that’s when we were outraged,” YGL member and fellow signatory Ramzi Jaber said.
“We were told that WEF cannot speak out against injustice because it is a neutral body and simply cannot take a public stance – only to see a few months later that the WEF took a strong stand on the war on Ukraine and expressed solidarity with Ukraine,” YGL member Mary Nazzal said.
“This is undoubtedly welcome and encouraged of course. But what is not welcome are double standards.”
“We asked the Forum to lead by example on taking a proactive approach to human rights starting with addressing human rights in Palestine,” another YGL member, Reem Khoury, said. “We asked the Forum to formally host a dialogue with Human Rights Watch and Palestinian and Israeli human rights advocates. Our only hope for peace and prosperity is through a dialogue about equal human rights and the end of human rights violations against Palestinians.”
Ait Hamza said that the WEF and the YGL had actively sought to involve Palestinians.
“The YGL community is constantly evolving, and young Palestinian leaders have been continuously represented in the community since 2020,” said Ait Hamza. “The Forum has launched multiple hubs of the [WEF initiative] Global Shapers Community in Palestine because of the belief that we need to have a voice that represents the people, especially young people.”
Lack of transparency
While Schwab’s response to the YGL letter sent in March made it clear he felt insulted, he reserved special disdain for a separate response that was sent only to Al Sabawi, as shown to Al Jazeera.
“The tone and the content of the letter is deeply offensive and inappropriate for a YGL member. To send it at a moment when the world is afraid of mutual destruction is in addition a lack of sensibility,” Schwab said in the email.
“Schwab’s highly ill-tempered language, tone-policing, gaslighting, and attempted intimidation aimed directly at myself, a person of colour, are typical of white men in power who think they are impune,” Al Sabawi said. “His email reveals that the YGL and WEF are not interested in making the world an equitable place, rather, it’s abusing its power at the expense of marginalised communities around the world.”
By August, Al Sabawi realised that he had not been invited to the YGL’s Annual Summit in Geneva, unlike his peers from the network.
He sent an email asking for an explanation but says the only response was an email in September telling him that he had been suspended “indefinitely” from the network. No explanation for the suspension was given.
The YGL members Al Jazeera spoke to argued that the emails and Al Sabawi’s suspension were examples of what they call a lack of transparency within the forum.
“I believe there is this fear of reprisal within YGL and WEF,” Jaber said, “which is why I believe there weren’t even more [YGL members] who signed the email pointing out the double standard.”
Jaber says he will resign from the YGL in solidarity with Al Sabawi. Nazzal is also considering suspending her membership.
“My values stand way above any institutional affiliation that I may have, and they always have,” Nazzal said. “I will act according to them.”