Crown Prince Abdullah
Leader, The House of Saud
Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, where the al-Saud family traces its lineage back 30 generations, is known at home as a reformer. He has cracked down on corruption and tried to open up the economy to more investment. It's his role as the broker of a Mideast peace deal, however, that has thrust him onto the world stage.
Abdullah's recent trip to President Bush's ranch to discuss his eight-point plan for peace — one that had been accepted unanimously by the 22-member Arab League — could become the foundation of any upcoming conference between Israel and the Palestinians. How the longtime relationship between the Saudis and the United States — overshadowed by oil, strained by the tepid Saudi response to 9/11 and the equally tepid U.S. response to the Mideast crisis — will fare in its wake is uncertain. As the prince himself said last fall, that relationship is "at a crossroads," and he holds the power to decide which way it turns.
Chancellor of the Exchequer
This 51-year-old finance minister is sticking to his sterling. With many crediting his 1997 decision to give the central bank independence within treasury-set inflation targets as the catalyst of Britain's recent boom, Brown is among the most reticent of the country's top officials to swap the pound for the euro and thereby cede control to the European Central Bank.
As a result, he's clashed with EU bureaucrats about the UK's ballooning deficit (on track to rise from $1.5 billion to $16.2 billion during the next year) and about being left out of big decisions like whether or not to scold Germany about its own deficit. Meanwhile, his recent tax hikes and unwillingness to weaken the pound have not won him any friends in the domestic business community. How he plays his cards will be critical to Britain's position in the EU, and his own ambition to eventually hold Prime Minister Tony Blair's job.
Mayor of Shanghai
Sitting in the seat that both Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji and President Jiang Zemin formerly occupied, Chen, 56, is the public face of Shanghai, a rich and rapidly growing city threatening to usurp Hong Kong as China's main business center within the next decade. Since his December promotion from deputy mayor, he has followed the foreigner-friendly course set by his predecessors, pledging millions to expand the city's seaport and airport, and shaking hands with executives from Siemens and Microsoft, among others, on their intended investments in Shanghai.
With Shanghai first in line to implement China's new WTO pacts, Chen is now pledging to "open up wider" and "deepen reform. "He's also leading the city's bid to host the World Expo in 2010. Of course, many others pull Shanghai's strings from behind the scenes; namely, regional Communist Party head Huang Ju.
If two of John McCain's major causes — campaign-finance reform and the expensing of stock options — are ever enforced, life will be dramatically different in Corporate America. But that's a pretty big if. The Arizona Republican has made campaign-finance reform the centerpiece of his war on "special interests." But the bipartisan ban on unlimited "soft money" donations that he championed seems destined for a long court battle.
Meanwhile, large corporations are poised to lobby against a bill introduced by the 65-year-old McCain and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that would remove the tax deductibility for options not counted as expenses. Don't expect the tenacious McCain to change direction. Neither of these causes has gained him corporate friends, but they will almost certainly help launch his Presidential campaign in 2004.
New Partnership for African Development
Hailed by G-8 leader and Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien as "a visionary proposal put forward by progressive African leaders" (namely, South African president Thabo Mbeki, Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, and Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika), this nascent plan to attract private-sector investors to the continent will likely dominate this month's G-8 summit. So far, it's a $64 billion question whether Africa's 53 nations can successfully establish the good corporate governance, financial-market integration, democracy, and disease control envisioned in the plan, meaning public-sector aid will in any case be a necessary catalyst.
But optimism has so far been high, with more than 600 business representatives gathering in Dakar in April to work out financing issues for NEPAD. And along with UK-based Business for Africa, the U.S.-based Corporate Council on Africa, representing ExxonMobil and other giants, has pledged long-term strategic support (including expert consulting and introductions to Wall Street bankers).
Our new best friend since he shipped oil to the United States in November, following September's terrorist attacks, the 49-year-old Putin resisted pressure from OPEC to slow production. Such gestures give Russia a pivotal role in controlling world oil prices. The potential foreign-policy complications are enormous: Russia supplies goods to Iraq and arms to Iran. But the emergence of Russia as a major oil exporter, and one friendly to the West, could greatly improve stability.
Of course, Putin can't take all the credit, nor does he have all the control. In Russia, the spigots are controlled by a few oligarchies. Notoriously ruthless in their struggle to acquire the oil companies, they seem to be playing nicer these days. If they keep it up, oil consumers everywhere can rejoice.
Atal Behari Vajpayee
Prime Minister, and his 26-party Coalition Government
While the 77-year-old Vajpayee has bolstered India's reputation as an emerging giant, particularly with the White House, political infighting within his cabinet has hampered real economic progress and left foreign investors wary. There are some positive signs that change is occurring — foreign direct investment hit a record $4.28 billion last year, and the government has promised reduced import tariffs and foreign corporate tax rates in the coming year — but the bureaucracy continues to slow privatization efforts and key financial-sector reforms.
Ironically, the country's strong IT-service sector developed quickly, largely because of the absence of entrenched regulations. "It's the exception that proves the rule," notes one New York-based analyst. "If they applied the same approach to other sectors, the Indian economy would boom."
The Bush Administration
Even Ronald Reagan may not have been as sympathetic to the concerns of Corporate America as our first MBA President is. From signing the repeal of OSHA ergonomic rules to translating American Gas Association suggestions almost verbatim into policy documents, George Bush fils has shown a consistent commitment to U.S. business interests. His appointees, despite their diverse ancestry and gender, share a common ideology: free markets above all (the raising of steel tariffs notwithstanding), unfettered by regulation.
What's more, like Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, almost all have strong industry ties. The Vice President, of course, hails from Halliburton; Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White comes straight from Enron; and Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson has close ties to Philip Morris. Even Christie Todd Whitman, a career politician, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency is bending that famously business-unfriendly agency into relaxing pollution standards.
In the post-Enron frenzy, the Administration has had to tread carefully. Fears that embattled Securities and Exchange Commission chief Harvey Pitt might prove too soft on his former clients, the accounting firms, may explain the Justice Department's vigor in prosecuting Enron's auditor, Andersen. Attorney General John Ashcroft's strongest corporate ties lie elsewhere — with the energy and pharmaceuticals industries.
But despite the distractions of the Enron scandal and the slow and tentative economic recovery, U.S. companies should take heart. The Bush Administration is open for business and willing to irritate its foreign allies if necessary to support American corporate interests. It just doesn't get any better than this.
The ultimate role model for CFOs, the 73-year-old czar of China's $1.19 trillion economy has been the number-crunching "bad guy" counterpart to President Jiang Zemin for more than a decade. During that time he has become known particularly for his successful campaigns to dismantle China's inefficient state-owned enterprises and shepherd the country into the World Trade Organization.
Zhu has put millions of people out of work while keeping his own post — a remarkable feat given the power Chinese bureaucrats hold. Pundits are divided about who will assume his role once Zhu resigns (likely this fall), but no one expects the winds of change he has stirred to be easily quelled.