DUBAI: As the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, slowly took on the colors and symbols of the flag of the People’s Republic of China earlier this month in honor of the visit of President Xi Jinping to the UAE, there was some real business being done away from the fanfare of top-level diplomacy.
Among the president’s entourage were a large contingent of financial and economic policymakers, accompanying their leader to put some concrete business deals in place to add substance to the new “strategic partnership” between China and the UAE.
Prominent in the Emirati delegation was Arif Amiri, chief executive of the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC). He inked an agreement with officials from the China Everbright Group, a financially focused, Beijing-based conglomerate. The deal could prove to be one of the most significant transactions done under Amiri’s three-year leadership of the Dubai financial hub. It is a straw in the wind of global financial transformation.
“We are witnessing continuous change in the global financial landscape, with emerging markets becoming some of the most dynamic and rewarding destinations for investment and growth,” Amiri told Arab News.
“In particular, the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region is developing into an international powerhouse for expansion, with Dubai at its heart, and offers huge opportunities for global partnerships that promote economic growth alongside social impact,” he added.
It is no coincidence that the eastward tilt of DIFC has accelerated since Amiri was appointed to the top job in 2015. He is symbolic of a new generation of Emirati financial executives, comfortable in the corridors of corporate power anywhere in the world, from San Francisco to Shanghai.
Educated in the US, he worked in banking with HSBC in the UAE before becoming chief operating officer at Emaar, the Dubai property developer. With banking and real estate experience under his belt, he ticked the two essential boxes required for senior executive involvement with DIFC.
His arrival at the top job also marked the launch of the DIFC’s ambitious 10-year strategy, with the aim of tripling in size — in terms of workforce, number of member firms and assets under management — by 2025.
The center is well on the way to achieve that goal. In the half-year ended last month, the number of registered companies in the DIFC jurisdiction grew 8 percent, the latest in a series of high-growth results that have been maintained even in the face of challenges like the global financial crisis of 2009 and others since then.
That growth has reflected greater interest from financial companies to the east of the Arabian Gulf. While in its early days the DIFC was largely a westward-oriented operation, looking to the US and Europe for new members, since the convulsions of the crisis the focus has been on the booming economies of China, India and Southeast Asia.
China, of course, is the biggest of those, and targeted by DIFC for long-term expansion early on. DIFC saw a confluence between its ambitions as a regional financial connector and the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) of Chinese policymakers.
“Through the BRI, China is bringing the world together, and its infrastructural investments throughout the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) are already contributing to our region’s development and economic transformation.
The region is a key element of BRI, with a population of over 3 billion people and combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $7.4 trillion. “At the region’s core lies the Dubai International Financial Center — a platform that is uniquely positioned, poised and willing to become a key partner of the BRI,” Amiri said.
The UAE and China are already well-established trading partners, with the value of bilateral trade reaching $60 billion last year. Oil and gas have traditionally been the mainstay of exports from the region, with manufactured goods and infrastructure services coming the other way.
But, as Amiri points out, that is changing. “China is now Dubai’s No. 1 non-oil trading partner and as wealth traverses the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, we expect to witness growing synergies in the financial services industry,” he said.
The Chinese recognize the importance of Dubai in the new world financial order, Amiri said. “Over 4,000 Chinese companies now call Dubai home and some of China’s most recognizable names have chosen DIFC as a base for their regional operations.
“To begin with, China’s four largest banks in terms of total assets — Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China (ABC), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and China Construction Bank Corporation — have successfully upgraded their banking licenses from being subsidiaries to becoming fully fledged branches in the DIFC. And last year, ABC was designated a yuan clearing bank in Dubai — one of the few destinations selected worldwide,” he added.
Chinese banks have been managing their interests in the Middle East and Africa, one of the BRI’s most significant regions, from the DIFC. More recently, they have been expanding into Eastern European markets making further use of DIFC’s international regulatory and legal framework.
“The opportunities for Chinese construction, energy, education, health care, hospitality and fintech firms to become involved in the economic development of the MEASA region are simply endless. The countries comprising this region are among the fastest growing in the world and need large-scale infrastructure development and investment, backed by a rapidly growing, stable and regulated financial services sector,” he said.
“This is where DIFC comes in, with our internationally recognized legal and regulatory framework and dynamic cluster of financial and non-financial businesses we are ideally placed to promote trade and investment between China and the emerging markets of MEASA, helping the country look beyond its borders and secure fresh economic opportunities.”
The deal with Everbright is just one example of these opportunities. The Chinese firm will be based in DIFC and use it as its beachhead for business in the rest of the region and in Africa, which China sees as an increasingly important area for investment and expansion. The commodities and minerals owned by African countries are essential for China’s booming economy.
But it is not just eastwards that Amiri is looking for growth. The DIFC’s ambition has always been to become the financial hub of the region, acting as a gateway for investment into the economic transformation going on in the UAE and elsewhere.
“As one of the world’s top 10 financial centers, and the leading financial hub for MEASA, the DIFC is uniquely positioned to support regional and global financial institutions looking to access fast-growing emerging markets,” he said.
“With government initiatives such as Dubai Plan 2021 in the UAE and Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia, the region is attracting increasing investor interest and economic development. The center’s internationally recognized legal and regulatory infrastructure, as well as its wide range of structure of substance, has made it the jurisdiction of choice for many businesses looking to tap into the opportunities created by these regional reforms.”
DIFC, of course, faces competition in this regard. Other regional financial centers, such as Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Manama, are also looking to act as a magnet for foreign investment into the region. But DIFC believes it has a head start in the race.
“Since the establishment of DIFC in 2004, our focus has been on continuously enhancing our world-class ecosystem of leading financial and professional services companies, and providing them with a platform to service the wider MEASA region,” Amiri said.
Education - Degree in aviation management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
•Corporate banking executive, HSBC.
•Chief operating officer, Emaar Properties.
•Chief executive, Dubai International Financial Center.