LIVE UPDATES: The 7th Arabian Business Forum

Region's premier business event features a number of top speakers from across the Middle East
JPL Director Charles Elachi.
By Ed Attwood
Tue 20 Nov 2012 09:37 AM

14:30: Things are just about winding down now at the 7th Arabian Business Forum, and so our live coverage ends here. Please check in at ArabianBusiness.com to follow more news and views about the forum as they come through. Thank you very much for joining us today.

13:05: What about manned flight? "There's no programme right now, but we are starting to prepare for it. We are thinking in about 2036 we will aim for that. It's a big engineering challenge - if you consider three or four people, and all the water, food and garbage they produce, for an 18-month flight, it's tough - but it is possible".

Elachi says he would be "pleasantly surprised" if evidence of life was discovered, and he does sound confident. When it comes to travelling further afield, obviously the distances prohibit exploration. "I think it's unlikely in the foreseeable future, unless there is a huge scientific breakthrough - but in this business you have to be patient." It's been a fascinating discussion, and Dr Elachi leaves the stage to a huge round of applause. We're breaking for lunch now, but will be back with you shortly.

13:00: One of the first surprises was the location of what was once a river - evidenced by the fact that pebbles in a particular layer were smooth and rounded. The only natural process that causes that is running water.

Elachi says he received literally tens of thousands of emails from all around the world, which have been a huge inspiration to him. Now it's time for questions. "Are we going to be invaded?" asks Andrew. "You should worry more about your neighbours," laughs Elachi.

One of the key questions Elachi is wrestling with is the fact that Mars has evolved from a relatively warm planet, to a much colder one. His team is trying to establish whether life could have existed in that warmer time. In about four years time, a new mission will drill down into the planet's surface.

12:45: We're now watching a short video the Curiosity mission - from testing the rover itself, to mission launch last year, and its nine-month journey to Mars. To hit the right landing spot, the JPL team had to do the equivalent of hitting a hole in one from Los Angeles to Dubai - into a moving cup. Right now, the rover is preparing to drive up a 15,000 foot mountain to carrying out survey work on sedimentary rock.

12:35: The influence of Arab astronomers over the centuries has been vital, Elachi says. They have named and discovered many of the planets and stars that we know so well today. He's now discussing Mars - and the remarkable similarities between geological formations on Earth and the Red Planet. They are indistinguishable - even he gets confused sometimes, he says. His team has focused on sedimentary layers on Mars, which gives an indication of the planet's history. So far, the Curiosity Rover - and two other rovers - have already found evidence of what looks like rivers and oceans that have existed in the past.

Right now, the Curiosity rover, launched in August, is looking for signs of organic material. If there is organic material as well as water, then there could - at some point - have been life on Mars. During the launch, over 50m people in the US logged onto NASA's site to check up on Curiosity's landing. 

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12:25: It's been an honest and open discussion with Qurashi, and he leaves the stage to warm applause. Now we have something truly special - a speech from Dr Charles Elachi, the man who led the Curiosity Rover landing on Mars earlier this year. It was an event that captured the world's imagination. "We do space exploration because it leads to more knowledge, and will lead to technological benefits further down the line," he says.

So why do we explore space at all, Elachi asks? The Jet Propulsion Laboratory director is taking us on a potted history of the universe, from the Big Bang, to the formation of the Milky Way, right through to the start of life on Earth. He's even managed to name-check the formation of the Arabian Business Forum as being a key step on that journey - naturally, we are happy to concur...

12:20: What's happening with the Great Britain island, asks a member of the audience? "We had a plan when we bought it - and it hasn't changed," Qurashi says. "The issue that we have is obviously infrastructure - when we bought it we were promised infrastructure and that hasn't happened. But we've been speaking to Nakheel and they've kind of given us the green light to come up with our own infrastructure. At some point next year, we should be able to announce what we will do with it."

Qurashi says he talks to a lot of the other island owners, and there is still strong opinion that The World has a lot of potential - but at the same time, infrastructure is a problem. He also points out that some buyers have walked away from the project. He says it will take "at least a couple of years" - or to at least 2014 - until building work starts there.

12:15: Has Qurashi written any post-dated cheques since he got out? "One," he says: "But only because I knew I had the money in the account." Does it make it difficult to do business? "It is challenging, but it affects me more on a personal level - so for loans, rental agreements and so on."

His new business is focused on what he calls "the middle market", so mid-range townhouses - two to three-bedroom villas and the like. Qurashi says his former investors have largely stuck by him. In terms of the local market, he says that there is "a lot of demand for the AED1.5-AED2m villas and townhouses". How much of an overhang is there? "In my market, there is more demand than supply - that's why I'm concentrating on it."

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12:10: Qurashi is discussing the cheque that caused his problems; it was from an investor that presented the cheque from outside the country. Since that time, however, the courts are starting to ask for burden of proof - from the person presenting the cheque - that cheques have been deliberately bounced. There is now a special court to handle these issues. Qurashi's first two hearings lasted for three minutes each. "But things are starting to change - you are not kept in jail and you are able to prepare your case," he says.

The problem is, according to Qurashi, that post-dated cheques are fundamentally linked to the process of doing business in the UAE, from rent deals to bumper property transactions. "This is one of the very few places in the world that uses post-dated cheques in this way," he says.

12:00: Qurashi says that as an Asia-centric global economy recovers, we will see a shortage in Dubai property. That's why he is back investing in the market through the Q Group. He is forming a facilities management company, and is obtaining the necessary licences to create property investment funds. "There is still a demand for investors to invest in Dubai," he says. It's an emotional and passionate speech, and wins a large round of applause.

"So - what we all want to know was - what was it like in jail?" says Andrew, straight off the bat. "It's not an experience I would recommend anyone here go through," Qurashi says. "You have your highs and your lows. I think it was hardest on my family."

11:55: His most significant learning of "the experience" as he calls his time in prison, is to do business in a more cautious way. "There are ways we need to improve the way we do business, and pay more attention to the people who work for us, and to the people who are affected by our work."

"My son was born here, and my daughters were brought up here - despite everything that has happened, this is our home," Qurashi says. "My vision is still to invest in Dubai as a long-term vision for prosperity. Dubai is my future. Many reports from experts suggest that the property market has bottomed out. All of this comforts my belief that we are long past the tipping point - or take-off speed where growth is assured".

11:50: After a successful career in London, Qurashi moved to Dubai in 2004 to build "a business that expressed what I believed in". He found a lucrative niche in the real estate market - which had just opened up after a national decree that allowed for foreign ownership of property. "I was not alone in thinking Dubai was alone and invincible in this recession," he recalls. "It seemed unsinkable." Most acquisitions, he says, were profitable and sustainable. But, as we all know, the global recession hit Dubai's property market and a brokerage transaction fell apart. "Everyone got paid, but I found myself at the wrong end of a system that jails people for bouncing cheques."

"There needs to be a shift to move away from using post-dated cheques to secure these transactions," he says. "But there are many movements on the part of the authorities to go in this direction. I believe it is important for the UAE to show that there is a fair system for all. The laws have worked previously, but we are in a time of change."

11:45: Right - we're back. Now we have Safi Qurashi - the man who bought the Great Britain island at Nakheel's artificial islands development The World. After being jailed for allegations regarding cheque fraud, he was cleared earlier this year, and is now back in the market, with the Q Group.

"I've been through quite a journey in the UAE," says Qurashi, with masterful understatement. "The number one question on everyone's mind is - why have I decided to remain in Dubai?" The story, he says, began in 1991 with a trip to Asia, which included a two-night stopover in Dubai. "What I remember with total accuracy was the feeling that this was somewhere that had all the ingredients for the future." 

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11:10: What do governments need to do to help growth in the region? "Regulations and policies, plus building economic infrastructure at a cost that is advantageous - that will create a comparative advantage compared to other regions," says Dalal. "In a century's time, the UAE will be looked at as a textbook case in job creation," says Phillips. "The right policies can do wonders," says Molavi - citing Deng Xiaoping's move to a more open market economy, which pulled hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. Dubai has certainly followed  those policies. It's a strong end to a fascinating debate. We'll be taking a short break for coffee, but we'll be back in about 30 minutes time.

11:00: "The GCC still has a tremendous future," says Dauba Pantenacce. But he does warn that the breakeven price - the oil price needed in order for governments to balance their budgets - is rising. Government spending will also have to be watched - he cites it as one of the biggest challenges for the region. Decisions such as increasing government salaries by 70 percent - as Qatar did last year - cannot be reversed.

Another question - will a mindset that encourages Americans to buy American products and Europeans to buy European products - effectively resorting towards protectionism to shore up local economies - affect the future economic balance? "I don't see a real decoupling of the global economy, to be honest," Molavi says. But he does say that Europe will continue to be a drag on the global economy.

10:50: Questions from the floor. Is America really losing interest in the region and, in those terms, what is the outlook for West Asia? Molavi reiterates that events will to a certain extent dictate US policy, but the long-term challenge for the GCC is a fiscal. "You spend a lot and you hope oil prices continue to rise - and this is not sustainable, especially as the breakeven price goes up," he says. Even despite the fact that GCC markets are doing well, he says they are still "under-performing on their long-term potential".

10:45: Dauba Pantenacce says that the GCC/West Asia issue has always existed; the interaction between India and the Gulf, for example, has always been strong. It's been some time since the GCC delivered more oil to the West than the East. A question from Andrew - if there is a resurgence in other regions of the world, where does Europe go? "Europe has the least favourable prospects of any zone," says Dauba Pantenacce.

But will Dubai and the UAE suffer from Europe's downfall? Oxford Analytica's Molavi says that about a third of global trade is 'south-south' - and that Dubai retains its place as Indians and other Asians do business in places like Africa and Eastern Europe. While everyone never believed that Jebel Ali and Emirates would never work, that misunderstood the core fundamentals of Dubai, he says. Did they overleverage? "Of course - but it's still a sound business model". 

10:40: He points out that the term 'Middle East' is actually a European construct; the Chinese refer to the region as West Asia. That's telling in the light of today's discussion.

Phillips highlights the "intellectual horsepower" on offer in the Middle East, and especially in the GCC. "This is a hotbed for executive talent - there are 32 MBA programmes present, and countless international business schools." Dalal indicates that  the US has been written off for years, but there is also a resurgency in industry outside hydrocarbons recently. On the GCC, he says it now needs to rebalance, especially on issues such as fuel subsidies. While this is a politically sensitive topic, Dalal argues that the subsidy should be spent on alternative energy rather than hydrocarbons.

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10:35: And with that, Zamil leaves the stage to loud applause. Next up is our discussion on the local economy. We have Afshin Molavi, the author and senior advisor with Oxford Analytica, consultant Shane Phillips, Philippe Dauba Pantenacce, a regional economist with Standard Chartered and Shahzad Dalal, vice chairman of IL&FS Investment Managers. 

Molavi agrees that the shale gas revolution has been a game changer, but he does point out that the GCC should be more aligned with Central Asia rather than the Middle East. He also indicates that the idea of the new Silk Route - trade between the GCC and Asia - is alive and well. But Molavi says, the US will see a lot of its diplomatic energy being used up in Palestine, in Syria and in Iran.

10:30: Another question - will there be a 'Women's Spring' to follow the Arab Spring? Yes, unemployment among women is high, says Zamil, and it's an issue that needs to be discussed at the highest levels of government. Jobs need to be created beyond teaching and nursing, he says. But around 400,000 women entered the private sector in the past 12 months - in a variety of sectors including manufacturing - which he says is very encouraging. In addition, the diversity of the capital market - which is spread through a variety of sectors - will also help boost the private sector in the future.

10:25: How can the private sector rather than the government provide sustainable jobs? This is the argument that is currently ongoing, says Zamil. "I truly believe that when governments put in place proper regulations to create sustainable jobs. And why do the Gulf countries hire labour from so far away, why not hire from Yemen? Not just from brotherhood reasons but from stability reasons?"

10:20: We're back on alternative energy. I bet you didn't know that Saudi Arabia is actually not an ideal location for solar energy - it's too dusty and requires constant cleaning. But the kingdom's authorities have located a specific belt in the country where solar energy can be maximised. Zamil thinks that solar can really help during peak daylight hours, when the electricity burden - around 70 percent of domestic energy demand comes from air conditioning - can fill in the gap.

On the demographics side, there is still a challenge. Around 30 percent of Zamil's employees are Saudis, but - crucially - he is also still hiring expats. It's still a necessity. "We still need to import skilled labour," he says. Then there's the religious tourism market, which Zamil says can realistically offer significantly more jobs for locals. Questions from the audience now.

10:15: It's a controversial view, but a refreshing one. Zamil sits down for a short question and answer session. He agrees that burning oil simply to provide electricity is a wasteful use of the resource. While SABIC exports 90 percent of its products overseas, Zamil says that more can be done. By taking matters further downstream, Saudi Arabia can produce not only plastics, but actual components as well. "Why can't we produce those components here," he says. "And that will create far more jobs than just traditional upstream projects."

10:10: Zamil goes on to discuss energy - in particular, the massive investment that is currently going into alternative energy. He predicts the concentration of downstream industries and the concentration of a base for alternative energy manufacturing supply chain.  It's a model that Abu Dhabi has followed via the development of Masdar. "The fact that the Middle East will no longer have to rely on oil exports is good, in my opinion," he says. "Oil has been a curse in many ways." Instead, Zamil argues, each barrel of oil should be processed internally to provide maximum value - such as in the downstream industry.

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10:05: And with that, Abdulla Zamil takes the stage to give his keynote speech. Zamil has masterminded the transformation of his firm into one of the Gulf's biggest diversified companies. From structural products to air conditioning units, from utilities to district cooling, and from prefab buildings to transmission and telecoms towers, Zamil Industrial has carved out a significant niche for itself in the region's nascent manufacturing industry.

Saudi Arabia, Zamil says, has an industrial sector that only provides for 13 percent of GDP - which is pretty low. By 2030, this will rise to 20 percent but, he argues, this is still not enough. "Refineries and petrochemicals projects do not create enough jobs," he says. "The governments in the region should be investing in downstream jobs," he says. He cites the example of a US$15bn refinery, which has just launched in Saudi Arabia, has created only 1,000 new jobs.

10:00: By the time Obama leaves office, the US will import no Middle Eastern oil - and China will move to fill that gap. Around 75 percent of China's needs will be supplied by the region in the next four years. Moving onto Dubai, Andrew highlights the move away from commodities into finance, trade, tourism and so on. "This is the way that the Arab economies must go," says Andrew. "The Arab world is a young world - two thirds of the population is under 35. And commodities don't create jobs. And in this changing geopolitical world, the challenge for this region is still to create economies that create jobs for all the young people. After all, if you're running an economy that doesn't create jobs for young people, you shouldn't be running an economy at all."

09:55: "These are times of great change," says Andrew. Re-elected president Barack Obama - the Pacific president - is rebalancing US interests towards the Asia-Pacific region. While events in Syria and Palestine wrench American policymakers back to the Middle East, Andrew argues the long-term focus has now changed. Now, more than 60 percent of US naval power is focused on the Pacific - as opposed to the equal split with the Atlantic just a few years ago. And 2,500 Marines are now training on a new base in Darwin, Australia - symbolic of that shift. "This is the first ever president of the US with no ethnic or cultural ties to Europe or the UK," Andrew says. "The focus is not on this part of the world. The focus is on the East Pacific and Asia."

09:50: Here comes Andrew. Last year, he says, he brought us a "letter from Europe" which detailed the difficulties the world's biggest economic partnership is having. Those problems, he indicates - as everyone in the room is well aware - are still ongoing. But elsewhere, the narrative has changed. "At a time when growth is faltering in China and India - we are now witnessing the re-emergence of the United States," he says. Industries that Americans thought were lost forever have now returned, in what US experts are now referring to as "the homecoming". Dow Chemicals is retreating from emerging markets and building up infrastructure at home, and gas prices are now making it impossible for other nations to compete on price with US petrochemicals and other products. By 2020, the US will be in a position of energy independence, he says. 

09:40: But first up - as has now become tradition - we have Andrew Neil, the head of the Spectator, former editor of the Sunday Times and the Economist, and BBC journalist - and chairman of ITP - giving the keynote speech. Last night, at our Arabian Business Achievement Awards, Andrew gave a fascinating speech describing how the shale gas revolution in the US has changed the global economy by shifting American interests away from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. The implications of that are going to be significant for the region.

09:30: Good morning and welcome to the Seventh Arabian Business Forum. I'm Ed Attwood and I'll be liveblogging an event that has become one of the most prestigious on the Dubai calendar. And what a line-up we have for you today. Our keynote speaker is one of Saudi Arabia's most accomplished businessmen: Abdullah Al Zamil, CEO of Zamil Industrial Investment Company. After that, we will take soundings from a panel of regional and international experts as to the health of the Gulf and Middle Eastern economies.

Following a short coffee break, Safi Qurashi - the real estate entrepreneur who was jailed for bounced cheque fraud four years ago, and who is now back on the local property market - will give his thoughts on the state of play for Dubai real estate.

And then we have one of the highlights of the day. Dr Charles Elachi, the Lebanon-born director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory - the NASA-linked agency that masterminded the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars earlier this year - has flown in from Los Angeles to give us his thoughts on one of the most significant scientific achievements of this decade. And last, but by no means least, a panel of property experts, including the CEO of real estate consultancy Tasweek, Masood Al Awar, will discuss the local market.

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