Saudi Woman Bridges Arab, British Business Worlds

DUBAI — Dr. Afnan Al Shuaiby, Secretary-General and Chief Executive of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, is well-versed in the language of diplomacy. When it comes to facilitating investment between Middle Eastern countries and the UK, she is keen to highlight the positive and promote the flow of capital and expertise to the mutual benefit of all parties.

By Denise Marray (Interview)

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Published: Tue 25 Aug 2009, 10:43 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:46 AM

Countries that some might describe as being underdeveloped, Dr. Al Shuaiby would describe as rich in potential. Problems or obstacles faced by would be investors she would similarly describe as challenges. Given this finely tuned use of language, Dr. Al Shuaiby, a Saudi citizen, leaves no doubt about the issues that are contentious.

For example, the £30,000 tax levied on non-domiciles with an annual unremitted foreign income of more than £2,000, who have resided in the UK for seven of the previous nine tax years, has not been well received. This tax, introduced by the British government last year, is, in the words of Dr. Al Shuaiby, “bothering the Arab world – specifically people from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, countries which have large investments in the UK.” She added that “from my experience dealing with so many countries and investors, this (tax) has really disappointed them because they’re bringing in a lot of profit and business to the UK – yet they’re paying a high price for that…. Many people have withdrawn their investments and are going elsewhere.” The law was passed by the British government despite intensive lobbying against it, and as far as Dr. Al Shuaiby is concerned, it has already had a negative impact. “The UK is going to lose a lot of business.”

Some people have already sold their UK properties, she said. “That’s a pity because we want to enhance the business relations, not lessen them.” Arab spending in the UK benefits the retail, entertainment, hospitality industries, as well as education and health. She also noted the historic ties between the UK and countries of the Middle East and their generally cordial relations.

“You hate to see something like that (tax) becoming an obstacle, and I hope we can get together and try to do something about it to create a better business environment for all foreign investors,” she said.

Indeed, Dr. Al Shuaiby in late July officially opened the Gulf Luxury Fair in London. The Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, or ABCC, was a co-sponsor of the fair, in which 50 companies and brands from across the Gulf participated together with some of the UK’s leading luxury brands. The ABCC is based in London.

“London has become the Islamic financial capital of the world”, she said. While real estate remains the No. 1 Arab investment in the UK, there is also a lot of investor activity in sports and education. Although the global recession has made UK banks less keen to lend money, she maintains that “there’s a good system here, and this is what makes the UK an appealing environment for Arab investors.” Before assuming her post in 2007, Dr. Al Shuaiby worked for nine years as an advisor to the President of the US Saudi Arabian Business Council in Washington.

Her earlier jobs included a stint as an assistant advisor to the Abu Dhabi Investment Agency, also in Washington, in 1996. Born to parents who encouraged her to excel, she has studied in Saudi Arabia and the US and also holds a private pilot’s licence.

On a broader front, Dr. Al Shuaiby expressed disappointment at the failure of the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council to seal a bilateral Free Trade Agreement.

The EU has an interest in enabling corporations to participate directly in the region’s oil, banking, telecoms, port services and other industries, but politics has thwarted an agreement. The EU insists that GCC members meet specific standards for democracy and human rights. The International Federation for Human Rights, among other groups, has called on the EU to require that the GCC respect freedom of the Press, women’s rights and the rights of migrant workers in the Gulf, in exchange for any trade concessions granted through a Free Trade Agreement. “It should have been a done deal quite some time ago”, Dr. Al Shuaiby said. She added that some Middle Eastern countries pay tariffs of more than 3 per cent on goods going shipped to Europe and that the majority of these countries are members of the World Trade Organisation. “There are some issues we really need to sit down and talk about, as the amount of business between Europe and Middle East, the GCC especifically, is tremendous, so we have to make it easier for both parties and remove obstacles.” Regarding the UAE, Dr. Al Shuaiby said that Dubai and Abu Dhabi overshadow the other five emirates in the minds of many foreign investors. Dubai is often wrongly referred to by foreign investors as a country, for example. She would like to see “more interaction with the other five emirates”, both within the UAE and from the UK.

Renewable energy is a sector in which investors are keen to forge relationships with the UAE. The ABCC is keen to support smaller specialised firms in this area, she said.

In October the ABCC will organise the Arab-British Economic Forum in London. The forum will be addressed by Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League.

The two-day event will see high-profile business leaders and commentators debating issues affecting Anglo-Arab business relationships. Dr. Al Shuaiby noted that while the main objective of the ABCC is to promote business and investment between the UK and all Arab countries, there is also a strong focus on cultural and educational aspects, “because nowadays they’re all tied together.”

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