Religion, Football... and Dubai

If you look ahead 10 to 20 years, Dubai will be better than it is today, says Edward Quinlan, UAE country partner of Ernst & Young

By Rahul Sharma

Published: Mon 16 Feb 2009, 1:22 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:51 AM

Edward Quinlan always finds time for religion, football and horses in his busy life, but regrets his inability to speak Arabic despite spending more than three decades in the region. “I am ashamed of it,” he says as we settle down to eat at the Capital Club, where Dubai’s rich and powerful spend a lot of time these days discussing the global economic meltdown.

“Unfortunately, I am not good at languages and I have never managed to do it,” Quinlan says as he reflects on his life in the Middle East. The lack of Arabic has, however, not stopped him from becoming one of the most sought after people in Dubai, his home for 20 years and a place he wishes to retire.

He smiles and waves at friends and acquaintances as he orders a salad and steak and I call for a salmon. It is obvious the UAE country partner of accounting firm Ernst & Young is more than comfortable with his surroundings as we launch into a discussion about him, his work and Dubai, which he can talk about forever. “Dubai encourages everybody to live their dreams and people are literally here to do that,” he says.

Quinlan qualified as a chartered accountant in London and then moved to the Kuwait office of Ernst & Young in 1973. Four years later he became one of the youngest partners ever in the history of the accounting firm. In the past he has handled the firm’s offices in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan.

He has worked with several of the region’s largest merchant family groups as they transformed themselves into large organisations and hasadvised governments.

He’s well placed to talk about Dubai and how it has changed in the past six years when meteoric growth transformed the once small, dusty trading settlement into an international city.

Dubai has always been ahead of its neighbours, and this was in its thinking. This has always been one of the attractions of Dubai and it has always been different, pushing the barriers and so forth. It really accelerated in the last five or six years. And it was almost as if Dubai of old was turbo charged,” Quinlan says, adding that it was doubtful if “any of us will see a period like that.”

The unprecedented growth had a flip side, however. “We paid a price. In a sense that we no longer had a personal life, we no longer had a social life, we were all working so hard. Our businesses were growing at a rate of 30-40 per cent a year, which is very, very high compared to mature economies of London, New York or Germany…,” he said.

It’s probably now time for a breather, an opportunity to revisit and strengthen what makes Dubai special — its people and their entrepreneurial spirit. “If you look ahead, 10-20 years, Dubai will be a major world city and quite frankly it would be better than it is today,” Quinlan says, adding that he sees opportunities in the current economic downturn that has shaken world systems.

According to Quinlan, while Dubai lacks natural resources that some of its neighbours have, its leaders have been “realistic enough to readily recognise that pace of growth will have to be reduced.” He also feels that stresses on certain sectors and companies create opportunities for people to help out by suggesting ideas to authorities, willing to listen, and clients.

In general, Quinlan feels, that the current economic crisis represented an enormous transfer of wealth from the older to the younger generation – a huge opportunity for the latter. “I see many people like myself, my vintage, have lost lot of their money in pension funds etc. Basically, the whole deleveraging that is taking place has caused asset prices to collapse. That gives young people, tremendous opportunity to acquire assets at much cheaper prices than the older generation did buy,” the 58-yar-old accountant explains.

At the business end things look a bit more difficult. It’s not easy to handle a situation when a business that was growing at up to 50 per cent annually in the first part of last year gets into reverse gear. The challenges are huge, but Quinlan says his firm would be “very, very reluctant to ask people to leave”.

“We as a firm don’t like rushing into hasty decisions to downsize. We are looking to see how we can help our clients. If they are property companies we can assist with cash flows, restructuring opportunities, there are lots and lots of them,” said Quinlan who strongly believes in the human face to business and giving opportunities to young managers.

Quinlan, who hasn’t been on a holiday for the longest, has his own antidotes for battling stress on the high streets of finance and policy he travels on. “Friday is my day for God… I am passionate about my football team Manchester United. The other thing is horse racing,” he says, adding that though he was not directly involved in breeding and owning horses he would like to own a good one someday.

“I like horses and I suppose I like people who like horses. I think horses are lovely animals and they don’t ask for too much in return. So horse racing, football, God, that’s the way I relax I suppose,” Quinlan says. But religion is most important to him because it gives one a set of values and standards. “For me all major religions are basically the same. They all have similar values and which is why I enjoy living in a very religious country. It creates a sort of society and culture where one can feel very comfortable even though the particular majority of religion might be different to one’s own.”

The other thing he strongly believes in is education. “I have got no children myself, but I am just very, very interested in education. But also one can see the value of it, both for indigenous society and expatriate as well,” says a man who came to region at a time when there were no schools around and all expatriates had to send their children overseas to study. All that has of course changed now, and Quinlan is actively involved with the Sharjah’s Al Manzil school for children of special needs.

He loves food too but dietary restrictions means he can’t dip into Indian curries, he says as he cuts a slice of his “very, very rare steak”. Gregarious people who enjoy life and who are pretty active tend to like good food, according to Quinlan.

Good restaurants define Dubai. What else describes the city? “Dubai is fast growing, exciting and gives one hope for the future. It shows how all of us can live together and so many people from so many nationalities I probably would never have come in contact with but for Dubai,” says Quinlan as we wrap up our business lunch.

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