Illuminating insights from year of interviews

The lure of the UAE as a “smart” place to do business, the outlook for the regional economy, the price of oil and the financial well-being of the Emirates. These were the main preoccupations of the interviewees who graced this regular slot in 2015.

In addition, given that 2015 was the year when Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), the capital’s new financial free zone, put in place the infrastructure that enabled it to declare itself open in October, many of them also gave a view on the prospects for the new financial hub in Abu Dhabi.

About 48 captains of finance and business featured here, most of them C-suite executives from some of the biggest businesses and financial institutions in the region. There was also a fair selection of international business people, as well as a number of political and diplomatic personalities either visiting the UAE or in situ here representing a foreign trade partner.

The criteria for inclusion were broad; interview subjects had to have something sensible and interesting to say about the UAE and regional business scene, but also give a global perspective. If they could inject a bit of fun and personality into the mix, all well and good.

Accordingly, the year began with a session with Igor Egorov, the chairman of the Russian Business Council in Dubai, who filled the bill on all counts. “A sophisticated cosmopolitan”, as he was described, Mr Egorov answered the burring question on the lips of hoteliers and real estate developers across the UAE: would the Russians come in 2015?

He thought the high rollers would continue to visit and buy property here. “But for the middle market it will be a bad season. Russian travel agencies have gone bankrupt and airlines have been affected by the lack of travellers and the falling rouble. It is not good for them.” He was right.

In February, at the Dubai Government Summit, one of the heavy hitters of the UAE corporate scene talked about one of other the themes of the year. Ahmad bin Byat, the chairman of du and chief executive of Dubai Holding, spoke about the ambition to become a “smart city” in the following terms: “Nobody says ‘we’re a dumb city’, and it’s politically attractive to claim to be smart. But it’s not just about hardware. Government is about execution of policies, and that requires political will and financial ­commitment.”

Getting into the real nitty gritty of the UAE’s financial infrastructure there were interviews with three of its architects. Essa Kazim, governor of the Dubai International Financial Centre and chairman of the Dubai Financial Market, spoke on a similar theme on the occasion of the DFM’s 15 th anniversary.

““We were the first in the region to be fully automated, dematerialised and technologically up to date. Today, we are a ‘smart’ exchange, but there is still a long way to go,” he said.

Later, Rashed Al Baloushi, the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange (ADX), spoke from New York as he led a delegation of the UAE’s biggest quoted companies on a roadshow to Wall Street.

He was keen to address the concerns about regional security that were increasing throughout the year.

“We are telling them that the UAE and Abu Dhabi have a clear strategy of diversification away from oil and that we are a friendly, secure place in which they can invest,” Mr Al Baloushi said. It was to be a recurring theme.

Later in the year, as ADGM carefully put in place its plans to launch, the chief regulator, Richard Teng, also took an international perspective. As a senior executive of a global market, much of his time had been spent talking to and forming alliances with other international markets. “Close international cooperation is very important for us. Sharing a common purpose and establishing global relationships will be crucial,” he said, announcing a string of international MoUs.

Nearly all the executives interviewed here in 2015 had a view on the forthcoming launch of ADGM, and of the relationship of the new market with Dubai. On the whole, they believed there was plenty of room for two financial centres in the UAE. For example, Zak Hydari, the chief executive of Rasmala Investment Bank, said: “The ADGM is such a good thing. It’s about increasing the whole of the UAE investor base in asset management and getting pools of capital in AD as well as in Dubai.”

The other recurring thread as the year wore on, inevitably, was the oil price. Simon Williams, the doyen of Middle East economists from his platform at HSBC, articulated the concerns of international investors that a prolonged period of low oil prices would radically change the economic landscape. “It should be viewed as something more fundamental – a lasting shift in the commodity cycle,” he said, with all that implies for economic policymakers.

There were illuminating insights from top executives on some of the big issues of the year. Tim Clark, the president of Emirates airline, spoke exclusively from Washington on the dispute between American and Gulf carriers over “open skies” policies, which dominated aviation coverage for much of 2015. He was not pulling any shots in the war of words with the US airlines who had alleged “unfair subsidies” against Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

“The methods employed by the US legacy carriers to discredit Emirates have been surprising and, quite frankly, repugnant,” he bluntly told the Washington Press Club.

There was also a first for this page: the first time an interview has spread over two days. The occasion was the departure of Ashok Aram from the Middle East, where he has headed up Deutsche Bank for the past five years, to go off to a bigger job based at the bank’s Frankfurt HQ. To him goes the last word: “The next couple of years will be challenging, but manageable.”

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