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Thu 10 Apr 2008 04:00 AM

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A place in the sun

Far from the perceptions of the international press, the Middle East is a haven of financial stability.

A report by international consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton claims that, far from the perceptions of the region that may appear in the international press, the Middle East is actually a haven of financial stability.

CEO Middle East finds that the economic future does indeed look bright.

Today, oil-producing countries, mainly those in the Gulf, use extra revenue to reduce foreign debt, boost liquidity, develop trade ties, and attract foreign investment," says Joe Saddi, a Senior Vice President with Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH).

However, the progress often goes unseen due to the region being cast in a certain light in the minds of many potential foreign investors, as witnessed in the...furore generated by the DP World/P&O agreement.

The price of oil on the international stage, hovering as it does around the US$100 a barrel mark, has meant that regional governments have had unprecedented levels of capital to plough into development and infrastructure.

This, in turn, has attracted ever-increasing amounts of expatriates looking to make the region their home, rather than merely passing through as economic migrants.

This is being noticed across the board, from real estate sales to the retail sector. "We are targeting a greater number of residents than ever before," Ramesh Prabhakar, Managing Partner of the Rivoli Group told CEO in a recent interview.

In, say, 1992 to 1995, our domestic customer base was only 35% of our business, whereas now it's far higher. People are staying and making a life for themselves here.

In a bid to attract foreign investment, a number of Middle Eastern countries have begun to allow non-nationals to own property, thus increasing the number of long-term residents who create wealth and add diversity to the population.

Dubai World Central's CEO, Real Estate, Khalid bin Harib, agrees that the range of people coming to live in the region has broadened: "With the rising demand for residences we can expect the construction boom to be ongoing for the foreseeable future.

As well as the luxury developments there are complexes being planned by some of the developers for managers and their employees too.

ETA Star Properties Executive Director, Abid Junaid concurs that developers are now offering projects that match the changing needs of the GCC's residents: "Although there are a good number of developers, including ourselves, who have projects in the luxury market sector there is only so much you can do there.
In any country or city you can have 10% to 20% in that tier but then you have to have the balance in the rest. The rest have to be aimed at lower income groups.

Governments are looking at a number of ways to achieve sustainable development. A middle class has to be nurtured and developed. In a region where half of the population is below the age of 20, a sustainable middle class is a viable solution to long lasting economic expansion and political stability.

The GCC's leadership has been working towards this end with a range of initiatives, both economic and legislative, to create a model of self-perpetuating sustainability.

However, the progress often goes unseen due to the region being cast in a certain light in the minds of many potential foreign investors, as witnessed in the political and public furore generated in the US by the DP World/P&O agreement.

There are a number of innate paradoxes governing the mind of the Middle East decision maker, which are essential facets of the region's business culture.

Understanding the attitudes and assumptions that shape the way business is conducted makes it easier to recognize future opportunities and navigate the challenges that lie ahead.

International attitudes are slowly changing however. Salim Sebbata, online trading company E*Trade's GM and Group Vice President sees signs of a shift in global perceptions: "More and more international financial services companies are setting up in Dubai and Qatar.

This is clearly a sign that growth in the Gulf region has not gone unnoticed. More and more US brokerage firms are starting to offer research [into GCC markets] and the first mutual funds have been launched. This is a good sign.

The desire to modernize rapidly is expressed in bold, creative decision-making and eye catching projects of unprecedented scale.

Iconic developments such as the man-made World and Palm developments in Dubai, or the Pearl project in Qatar have focused the world's attention on the GCC.

Projects such as the Burj Dubai, the world's tallest tower, and the bridge across the Gulf serve to further cement the region's growing reputation for innovation.
"International marketing efforts by the Dubai government and the Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing has ensured that the UAE and Dubai are firmly placed on the global map as a first class destination," says Danny Haddad, CEO of luxury hospitality development Tiara.

"Dubai and the UAE as a whole are experiencing unprecedented growth with visitors from both the business and leisure sectors.

With new regional and international routes opening up all the time, the national airlines are finding demand is robust and development in the hospitality sector is keeping pace with this rhythm.

US brokerage firms are starting to offer research [into GCC markets] and the first mutual funds have been launched.

The appeal is also being touted by impressive marketing campaigns led by local groups; from Emirates and Etihad airlines to Emaar and the Jumeirah group, by a process of sponsorship and acquisition the world is sitting up and taking notice of events in the Middle East.

On the legislative side leaders have pushed for more opportunities for their citizens to take advantage of the economic growth underway, from programmes of national integration to a massive push for education initiatives.

Last year saw the unveiling of the ‘Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation', a major initiative to promote human development and provide hope and opportunity by investing in education in the region. The foundation was endowed with US$10bn, a sign of the importance of the project.

The BAH report focuses on further examples of the push for knowledge. In boasting; "our people are our greatest asset," Jordan's Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy Initiative brought together 17 Jordanian organizations, 17 global corporations, and 11 governmental and nongovernmental organizations to implement a public-private partnership model in 2003.

Information and communications technology (ICT) firms sought to develop local high-tech skills, hundreds of schools have been refurbished, teachers trained, and the entire Jordanian public school system will soon be connected by a high-speed broadband network.

Meanwhile, Qatar's leaders have prioritized creating a cutting-edge school system that harnesses technology for learning. The country's Supreme Education Council (SEC) is playing an integral role in the development and implementation of major reform in the schools.

A similar bold commitment to progress is Saudi Arabia with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology - an international, graduate-level research university dedicated to scientific achievement.

In today's global market fixed business plans don't exist and in the Middle East, decision makers tend to follow a five-year planning cycle, but never consider these plans to be permanent.
They realize the importance of a clear direction, but with so many economic changes, strategies must be open to rapid change. A market that is regulated one day may be deregulated the next: focus and flexibility must go hand in hand.

Governments facing challenges in opening the economy to foreign investment are developing special economic zones, luring capital to contained, controlled environments. ".

The global spread of Shariah banking is another example of how the Middle East is exporting its financial culture to the rest of the world. Bonds such as sukuks and other initiatives are flourishing in previously hostile environments, such as the City of London.

Investors are just as likely to look to the GCC as to plough their savings outside the region.

The comparative stability of the local stock exchanges (boosted by the access to liquidity), following the upheaval of the end of 2006 has meant that investors are just as likely to look to the GCC as to plough their savings outside the region.

"E*TRADE sees the Middle Eastern market as very promising and we're committed to growing our franchise in the region. When we last publicly announced corporate earnings in Q407, we disclosed that our Middle Eastern operations saw a 12% increase in trading volumes that quarter compared to the prior quarter," confirms E*TRADE's Sebbata.

"Incentives have also been implemented for non-nationals who want to participate in capital markets; such incentives attract a higher rate of investment and accelerate development," Saddi commented.

This has prompted the region's professionalism and transparency to increase.

Human capital is increasingly important as the region's economy moves away from oil dependency. The region is welcoming diverse talent, and is ensuring it can retain this talent, while nurturing its own.

"You know, 30 years ago people who were thinking about working here would ask about packages, trying to work out whether the remuneration was worth staying outside the main primary markets," said Prabhakar.

Now it's a truer market to the rest of the world. Employees talk about long-term contracts and plan on staying rather than being transient.

"The emergence of a new regional, diversified economy is a fundamental shift that will affect corporate investment and geopolitical activity," says Karim Sabbagh, VP at BAH.

The Middle East may be developing a new type of economy, different from any other that has preceded it. And, with this, the region may finally find its rightful place in the sun.