Great visions, wasted opportunities
The commissioning of Aluminium Bahrain (Alba) in 1971 marked the birth of industrial diversification in the oil-rich region of the Arabian Gulf. Today, Alba ranks among the largest aluminum smelters in the world.
Bahrain’s aluminium success story began in the mid-1960s when the government, seeking to diversify the economy away from its heavy dependence on oil, began exploring alternatives. The aim was to establish an industry that would provide valuable export earnings, develop the country’s resources and create training and job opportunities for the national workforce. Today, Alba’s ongoing success has also created a thriving downstream industry in Bahrain, providing additional training and job opportunities for the national workforce.
It is a success story that has served as the blueprint for the region’s industrial diversification. It is a story that has been replicated, even bettered, across the region with the establishment of Dubai Aluminium (Dubai) and Emirates Aluminium (Emal) in the UAE, Qatar Aluminium (Qatalum), Sohar Aluminium in Oman and Ma’aden Aluminium in Saudi Arabia.
The Alba story, however, is not unique. It is the same story with education, with the region’s oldest public education system and its first girls school, with aviation, with healthcare, with telecoms, with tourism and with banking and finance.
Bahrain was truly a trailblazer then, playing a real pioneering role in the truest sense. Those were brave times, when brave decisions were taken to drive momentum and create our modern-day GCC region — including the now internationally celebrated razzle-dazzle of Dubai.
Bahrain has, by any definition and for all practical purposes, pioneered the very concept of diversification away from oil dependency. The government of Bahrain had a clear vision. Multiple visions, all leading to the same ultimate goal — the creation of a stable, sustainable economy through effective diversification. The chief architect, Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa, is a man of many visions — and he has been able to articulate them with enough clarity and focus to put Bahrain on the world map, earning us pride of place among the world’s greatest as true, tried-and-tested pioneers.
Unfortunately, however, over the past few decades, we have been struggling to implement these visions. Instead, we seemed to have allowed ourselves to get caught up in a vicious cycle of shortsighted, sometimes petty, decisions. This is particularly sad because we have already demonstrated that, as a nation, we are capable of realizing these visions and translating them into tangible realities — we have done so before and we have even taught our neighbors how.
Our banking and finance story is, in my opinion, the most painful example of this very phenomena: When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, the Bahrain government, as part of the prime minister’s same master plan of diversifying the economy away from oil dependence, saw the opportunity to make Bahrain the new banking capital of the Middle East. The vision was there. It was clearly spelled out. Unfortunately, the executives failed to implement it. It was there for our taking, but we let it go.
Bahrain, if it had efficiently and accurately implemented the vision of the prime minister in the 1970s and early 1980s, would have been the only financial center in the Middle East, and perhaps we would not be hearing about Gulf capitals that are surpassing us today. Unfortunately, this vision was not satisfactorily implemented because of a lack in skill and operational efficiencies in the mechanisms that implement the ideas of the leadership. Today we see intense competition between several Gulf capitals to become the financial center of the region: Riyadh is in a privileged competitive position, Doha is strongly placed, Abu Dhabi is certainly in the picture, and Dubai continues to dominate the region.
We must stop and evaluate exactly what has changed, and how we can correct our bearings to return to our path of trailblazing innovation. We have a plan. We know it works. We now need to go back to implementing it. To do so, we need competent executives who can help realize the visions, and translate them into tangible realities. The sooner we do so, the better.
• Khalid Abdulla-Janahi is currently the Group Chief Executive of Dar Al Mal Al Islami Trust (DMI Trust) with over 30 years of experience in banking and financial services. He is also the Chairman of Solidarity Group Holding; Ithmaar Development Company and Naseej B.S.C., and a board member of Faisal Islamic Bank of Egypt and Ithmaar Bank. He was previously a Partner of Price Waterhouse, Vice-Chairman of the Arab Business Council, World Economic Forum and a member of the Bahrain Economic Development Board and has served on a number of other boards including Centre for International Business and Management, University of Cambridge.