Dubai was put under the microscope by prospective investors at a packed event held at the London Chamber of Commerce in the heart of the financial centre.
Shaikh Mohammed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, First Secretary of the Embassy of the UAE in London, said it was particularly significant that “40 per cent of attendees were unfamiliar with Dubai and interested in its potential,” representing new business opportunities.
Fayha Sultan, marketing manager for commerce at the Dubai Representative Office in the UK and Ireland, said the event had been over-subscribed, with marked interest from the education, banking, law and professional services sectors.
She said that while the UK remained the “No.1 market for investment going into the UAE”, there was, in the wider European context, “an upsurge of interest from Germany”, which she characterised as wanting to “diversify and be more pro-active”.
Keynote speaker John Martin St Valery, the chief executive officer of the Links Group of Companies, responded to questions from the floor about the legal structure of companies in the UAE. He reassured potential investors wishing to set up an onshore limited liability company that a business can be set up in such a way that the beneficial ownership and majority profit share remains with the foreign party.
Whilst allaying any concerns on the profit front, he did caution prospective investors to do their research and conduct due diligence. He added that for companies with an international, rather than local, reach in terms of their product or services, free zones were the ideal option.
“We”re seeing professional services and companies wanting to use Dubai as a geographical hub,” he said. They were keen, he noted, to take advantage of the opportunities in the wider region, basing themselves in Dubai with its excellent transportation, communications, medical and education facilities.
He talked of a “New Silk Road”, with growing interest from China. “Traffic from China, not just products to be sold in the Dubai market, but products to be re-packaged and traded in the wider region, is growing exponentially,” he said.
With two-thirds of the world’s population within an eight-hour flying distance of Dubai, it makes for an ideal trading hub.
On the subject of debt restructuring, Ayesha Sabavala, editor/economist for Middle East and Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, gave a balanced overview.
She noted that Dubai’s debt, which at the end of 2010 was about $113 billion, has now come down to $80 billion, bringing the debt-to-GDP ratio for Dubai below 100 per cent. “We do believe that in 2012, Dubai government-related entities will be able to refinance their debt,” she said.
She further observed: “Some of the debt payments may be from non-core asset sales and some from internal cash flows, but Dubai government related companies are quite cash-strapped at the moment, and given the global conditions, they”re not going to be willing to sell core assets. So the bulk of repaying the debt will come through re-financing, that is issuing new debt to pay off existing debt.”
This entailed risk, she said, because with the debt crisis in Europe, European investors who have previously been buyers of Dubai’s and GCC governments’ debt, could remove themselves from what they consider non-core markets, and the GCC happens to be a non-core market for the EU. Having noted that potential negative aspect, she turned positive, saying: “We have seen some of this void being filled by Asian investors.”
Another plus, she observed, is that “investors are looking for safe havens to park their money and that plays out well for countries such as the UAE which are considered safe-havens.”
She pointed to the success of the Dubai government”s recent issue of a $1.25 billion Islamic bond. “The bond was very well-received in the market,” she said.
On the subject of debt restructuring, St Valery took a positive view though he said the eurozone crisis could present a problem in terms of debt refinancing.
“The corporate governance structures that are now in place and the transparency in the market, will allow the refinancing to take place,” he said.
Oliver Cornock, regional editor for GCC at the Oxford Business Group, said Dubai was in better shape after the economic slowdown, with positive growth noted in financial services, tourism and trade traffic.
The Neutral Group founder and CEO Karl W. Feilder, who was interviewed live through the Internet from Australia, by Links Group’s Rob Denman, recommended Dubai as a “great springboard to the region.” On a personal level, he said he was really impressed with how safe Dubai is, mentioning that he felt so secure that he didn”t lock the door to his property.
He said there was no shortage of talent interested in working in Dubai, as he discovered when he was recruiting. He also described Dubai, “as one of the best networking places in the world.”
Comments after the event indicated a high level of interest in doing business in Dubai. John Austin of Barbados Maritime, attending a Dubai event for the first time, said: “I’m particularly impressed with the free zones because our client base would be all international — so that has got my attention and I want to pursue it.”
Satish Harpalani, solictor-advocate of law firm Harpers, said: “I need to explore further what facilities the Dubai International Financial Centre could offer small to medium sized enterprises. I think there is great potential.”