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With Gulf links growing, it’s plain sailing to prosperity for Montenegro

Most of Porto Montenegro’s berths are Arab-owned, with the majority of yacht-owners hailing from the GCC region. Inset: Riana Group CEO Romy Hawatt. (Porto Montenegro)
SVETI STEFAN, Montenegro: When an immaculately presented PR assistant points to a pristine wooden boat bobbing in the distance, I realize this isn’t going to be a standard interview.
“That is Romy’s boat,” she says, adjusting her designer sunglasses under the late-summer sun. “He’ll meet you aboard in five minutes.”
Romy Hawatt’s boat — “Riana” — is named after his wife and takes center stage in the glorious foreground view from the third Global Citizen Forum (GCF), staged on the islet of Sveti Stefan, Montenegro.
As it turns out, the well-connected Hawatt doesn’t just own a boat. The affable Lebanese-Australian businessman also owns an air charter business and has considerable financial interests in the former Yugoslav state. It is his very own helicopter that can be heard whirring in the skies, shuttling megastars and Montenegrin aficionados such as actor Robert De Niro and US rapper Akon, to and from the global think-tank event.
There are probably many occasions when I wished I had taken the time to indulge in a pedicure — but being asked to remove my shoes on an impromptu visit to a millionaire’s yacht probably tops the list. “We love Riana and like to keep her pristine,” the captain of this 42-meter wooden beauty says with a sheepish affection as I step on to her polished floors.
Burly Croatian Ljubisa Bogdanovic — or “Lubi” for short — has captained Riana for four seasons. “This is 220 tons of wooden boat. She costs twice as much to maintain as a non-wood boat but she’s worth it,” he says with a smile.
While I wrestle with a choice of welcome fruit juices and cooling towels, Hawatt emerges from the boat’s depths. “Welcome,” he says. “Please take a seat.”
Hawatt, who is CEO of Dubai-headquartered Riana Group, says that life didn’t always look this way. The first time Hawatt visited Montenegro, he was a young and wide-eyed backpacker. “I came from very humble beginnings, but I’ve always been fascinated by this place. I was amazed by how beautiful it is and ever since then I’ve kept my eye on it,” he says.
By 2013, Hawatt says he realized that things were “starting to happen” in the country and the businessman flew in to snap up his first $5 million apartment. It was a prescient decision. In the few years since Montenegro gained independence, the tiny nation has set itself on a solid growth path.
The country defied its Russia links to join the ranks of NATO in June this year and is a candidate EU nation. Montenegro’s economy will grow 4 percent this year and around 3.5 percent in 2018 owing to strong activity in the tourism, infrastructure and construction sectors, the central bank Vice-Governor Nikola Fabris said in September this year.
Montenegro has also recently strengthened its links with the Arab world. Last year, the nation’s most luxurious marina, Porto Montenegro, was acquired in full by the Dubai government. The state-owned airline flydubai has also announced twice-weekly flights to the Montenegrin capital city of Podgorica from Nov. 1, 2017. In recent years, Hawatt says he has helped to bolster the nation’s growth strategy in recent years by setting up global private-jet services to the region and investing in numerous Montenegrin hotels.
The Riana founder also set up the nation’s first pilot-training center with the aim of increasing connections within the country and formed the Discover Montenegro destination-management agency, which offers yacht and helicopter charters and country tours, as well as real estate support for those looking to purchase a property.
The CEO, who currently calls Dubai home, says: “Montenegro is the next best thing, or it’s the next new place, I should say. It’s an undiscovered treasure. It has an open government with very open policies in terms of investment expropriation; you can send money in and out freely. Montenegro is also working on an investment for citizenship program (CIP), which is part of why they are hosting the Global Citizenship Forum (GCF) here. In part, the event is pointed to raising awareness toward that.”
Hawatt says he expects it will be “five or six months” before the prime minister of Montenegro ratifies what that nation’s CIP terms will look like.
Speaking at the opening of the GCF event, Pavle Radulovic — Montenegro’s minister of sustainable development and tourism — made no secret of his desire to whip up foreign investment and foster international inclusion. Radulovic told the audience of several hundred businesspeople, diplomats and academics:
“We support the idea of CIP and globalization. This is why we wanted to become a member of NATO and the EU. I’m optimistic that more people in Montenegro want to have better living standards, Western standards. This is what gives me faith in our citizenship program.”
Despite the country’s enthusiasm to offer citizenship to foreigners, Hawatt dismisses the notion that Montenegro is simply joining a growing band of countries that offer “passports for sale.”
He says: “Montenegro is not following suit with a lot of the other European countries, it’s positioning itself as a premium product. It’s not like you can buy a cheap apartment and just get citizenship.
“It’s part of an overall investment program which feeds into the bigger strategy for the country — it’s a kind of a bolt-on. By bolting on this citizenship program to a bigger strategy, it becomes a well-rounded proposition.
“The country has a lot of infrastructure opportunities and hotel opportunities. There are simply not enough hotel rooms in this country, and there is also agricultural and technology opportunities. All these sectors are begging to be invested in because of the country’s location.”
The CEO says he has seen a massive increase in GCC interest in Montenegro. “Abu Dhabi is an early mover and government agencies and private companies are showing a lot of interest,” he said.
He pointed to Porto Montenegro, which has already attracted considerable international investment. Danilo Kalezic, senior marketing manager at Porto Montenegro, says the Arab market is “very interested” in Montenegro.
“We are happy to have seen an increase over the last couple of years.” Kalezic adds: “Ever since our government regained its independence a decade ago, it has been working hard to re-establish Montenegro as a high-end holiday destination strategically positioned in central Europe, yet offering some of the most dramatic landscapes and beautiful coastline.”
The marketing manager says Porto Montenegro is one of the Mediterranean’s top superyacht marinas, conceived to cater mainly to superyachts. “We are a homeport, offering 450 berths out of which 130 are fit for super and giga-yachts. Given the amount of superyachts owned in the Middle East, we are the perfect fit for them.”
According to Kalezic, most of Porto Montenegro’s berths are Arab-owned, with the majority of yacht-owners hailing from the GCC region.
Kalezic says Porto Montenegro also offers various investment opportunities, such as real estate, holiday homes and yachting tourism.
“We pride ourselves on the variety of buyers investing in Porto Montenegro and can really say that our clients come from all over the globe,” he explains. “Our most common markets are Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but we are happy to see a growing interest from the US and Far East as well.”
Like Hawatt, Kalezic says he has fallen for Montenegro’s charms.
“This is an unspoilt and beautiful destination with warm, hospitable people and high-end services in the center of Europe. What more could you ask for?”
And, as for the majestic Riana, she’s soon set to rest in the local dry docks to be restored to seafaring glory for next year’s season upon the balmy Med seas.

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