Part of the past occupations series. Just before we set off on our most memorable leg of the Middle East research trip, Beirut, my colleague and I toured the UAE and Qatar for four days. It had been my first time here. I would like to go back with some more time on my hands, but in all honesty, other places are probably higher on my priority list.
The KLM flight AMS-DUB is full of familiar oil people cramming into business class. I have a window seat and enjoy an excellent view of Burj al-Khalifa, the world’s tallest building emerging on the right as we approach the city’s airport. A major investment bank again organised an “all inclusive” tour and parked a sales guy from their Saudi office with us. The guy, of Palestinian descent, is probably glad to get out of Riyadh for a while. (In fact, he was just looking forward to get to Beirut.)
I meet with a friend who happens to be in town. She is a USAID worker on leave from Afghanistan. She prefers to take her infrequent breaks in the comfort of the Gulf. Knowing the extended Karzai family (who allegedly have a house here), she blags access to the artificial palm island’s residential lanes. I marvel at the perfectly compartmentalised Arabian dream so sought after in the region, house by house.
We get a private tour of DP World, operating one of the world’s largest container ports. Absolutely stunned being driven around in a jeep alongside some of the most monstrous container ships. It feels like being on a different planet ruled by machines. My frequent questions about Iran and the Strait of Hormuz are being politely evaded. The city-state is slowly recovering from the property crash a year earlier, the last thing the Emirate needs is a confrontation between the world and the mullahs across the strait.
Abu Dhabi on the other hand appears to have come out on top, having bailed out its profligate and glitzy neighbour thanks to its oil and related financial firepower. Some sense of triumphalism is palpable here, just 100 kilometers down the road.
As some of the biggest investment opportunities are in the property sector, “site visits” are a frequent pastime of the EM investor – and Abu Dhabi is no exception. We visit Yas Island, a project of regional heavyweight developer Aldar Properties. Replete with F1 track and “Ferrari World” amusement park, the artificial island has an eerie atmosphere to it. Partly because it isn’t finished yet and partly because it is just that – a huge $36bn artificial island in a region full of artificial mega projects. (I hear that the project has actually been quite successful – and no white elephant as feared before.)
The rest of Abu Dhabi proper had the same sanitised feel to it than neighbouring Qatar – it just seems a tad dull and boring.
We hardly meet locals in the companies we visit. Often up to CFO level, foreigners (mainly South Asian and European) take care of the operations of these big corporates and see investors.
Qatar, as said, has a sanitised and empty feel, too. We stay in the Four Seasons which has a pretty view across the city and as much marble used up in its construction as in ancient Rome. The city will win the bid to stage the World Cup in 2022 soon, so people are quite excited about the prospect (and I think it’s a silly idea). We have the first local, the investor relations guy at a big local bank, give us a presentation during the trip.
The “concept” Qatar feels strange: It already is the richest place in the world in per capita terms (it has less than two million inhabitants). The continued development of its huge gas reserves as well as the some of the world’s largest GTL and LNG projects will surely add to its riches. It is a regional powerbroker with increasing diplomatic clout as well as some cultural sway – after all Al Jazeera is based here. Yet Qatar is what it is – a small island off the much bigger and much more powerful Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately I don’t find the time to visit the new and apparently amazing Museum of Islamic Art, probably one of the wiser recent cultural investments in the region.