Sharjah – MENA Herald: The first two sessions of day 1 at the Sharjah FDI Forum 2016 introduced crucial business themes, like the future of the UAE beyond oil and strengthening trade partnerships with UK and the rest of Europe, bringing together some of the region’s financial experts, CEOs of big businesses, policymakers, entrepreneurs and more to share their experiences and expertise.

The overarching theme of the two sessions were encapsulated in the phrase ‘ease of access’. Every key speaker and panelist took turns to emphasise how the UAE, and Sharjah in particular, have created the most fertile conditions for their businesses, first, to be established, and then grow and flourish under the numerous pro FDI policies and procedures that have been put in place for foreign investors from all around the world.

The panel discussion titled, ‘Beyond Oil – Capitalizing on investment opportunities in the UAE’, was chaired by Dr Nasser Saidi, President, Nasser Saidi & Associates, Member of Regional Advisory Group for MENA, IMF; Dr Arjen Radder, CEO, Philips ME & Turkey; Neil George, Senior VP, Acquisitions and Development ME & Africa, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide; and Danny Farha, Co-founder & CEO, BECO Capital.

Having engaged in profitable businesses with the UAE for numerous years, businesses that do not directly deal with the oil economy of the nation, the panelists said that the nation has been doing massive groundwork to diversify investment interests in the region; something reflected in the prolific growth of businesses and industries that do not directly come under the purview of oil and gas. They also went on to say that the UAE has taken like fish to water in the sphere of adapting to global innovations, which have been introduced over the years to facilitate new and existing businesses to consolidate operations. From hotel groups to growth capital companies operating out of the UAE, every industry without exception has witnessed and absorbed far-reaching technological innovations to make their businesses more internationally relevant, user-friendly and profitable.

Throwing light on how Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide has benefitted from these innovations, its Senior VP, Acquisitions and Development ME & Africa, Neil George said, “We have over 42 hotels with 13,000 keys spread across the UAE, and these numbers continue to grow. The reason our growth trajectory has been pointing north since our inception here, is because have innovated and diversified our business by making our products and services cache more meaningful and relevant for our investors as well as the end-customer. This is key for the success of new businesses attempting to enter the market and also existing ones to sustain themselves, profitably.”

“One of the most significant diversification efforts made by the nation is to end their absolute dependence an oil-driven economy, and create the necessary conditions for the tourism industry to flourish here, making Dubai and the rest of the UAE one of the biggest tourist hubs in the world. Their recent announcement about Chinese nationals getting visas on arrival is extremely beneficial for our business, as ease of access for business professionals and tourists will increase footfall into the UAE, driving our strategies on how much more infrastructure we need to support UAE’s tourism-driven economy,” he added.

The discussion progressed to how the adoption of new policies could help UAE’s economy to diversify further, and Dr Nasser Saidi, President, Nasser Saidi & Associates, Member of Regional Advisory Group for MENA, IMF, made several interesting observations. He said that the ongoing discussion about UAE insolvency and personal insolvency laws will be a big step towards ensuring financial security to new and existing investors. He then brought up the ongoing deliberations on the UAE Investment Law, saying, “Allowing 100% ownership of businesses is something we must look into seriously as 86% of UAE’s population is occupied by expats, 30% of who are longstanding investors who have been operating their businesses out of the UAE for several years. Freeing up the investment space in certain sectors to begin with will certainly boost financial markets, reducing drain of capital as investors will feel more entitled to their businesses and feel safer to keep their finances within the country.”

He also highlighted that investing in human capital by educating and training the Emirati youth, and also encouraging young expats to channelise their skills and expertise into various sectors in the UAE will be crucial for growing the FDI industry in the UAE. He also touched upon how changing immigration policies by making it more conducive to expat residents will encourage businesses and individuals to make long-term investments.

Courtney Fingar, Editor in Chief of the fDi Magazine, Financial Times, then took stage to interview David Burns, Chairman and CEO, The British Business Group. The interview theme was, ‘Strengthening trade links between the UK, Europe and the UAE’. Owning to Burns’ longstanding association with the UAE since 1967, and having founded and developed companies in numerous industries including commercial property, project management, logistics, publishing, HR Consultancy and recruitment, he provided valuable insights into how the nation and GCC as a whole has provided his business and other businesses from the UK and Europe tremendous opportunities to consolidate and expand very profitably.

“What makes Sharjah unique and interesting as an FDI destination?”, asked Ms Fingar. In addressing her question, Mr Burns remarked, “Sharjah has had a thriving business community with a bustling seaport, airport and business infrastructural facilities even before the UAE gained independence. In that sense, it has really taken the lead in the establishment of local economic setups as well as has served as the UAE’s oldest gateway to foreign investments. People’s vision in this emirate hasn’t changed since I came here almost 50 years ago. Arab people are some of the earliest entrepreneurs in the world, who facilitated some of the very first trade routes for international trade.”

“The ease of doing business in Sharjah is phenomenal. Ease of access to crucial resources while setting up businesses is one of the best in the world, with free zone companies enjoying complete ownership & control rights of their respective entities,” he added.

David Burns went on to stress on the importance of conducting detailed research and due diligence before setting up a business in a chosen industry, and urged start-ups to seek professional assistance and advice before committing to long-term investments in Sharjah and the UAE. He said charting out a business plan, working on its growth prospects in the near future will make a strong case for SMEs, which find it rather difficult to attract financing for their projects, to solicit sector-specific financial aid by several organisations within Sharjah and the UAE.

The sessions provided valuable industry insights and discussed global market trends in the FDI sector, educating existing and prospective businesses in the region of the potentials and possibilities for exploring and further integrating their businesses into the non-oil sectors of the UAE economy, particularly Sharjah.