Leading Emirates health care, education investor eyes Saudi Arabia

Abhishek Sharma worked as a financial analyst at Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers before launching Foundation Holdings in 2016. (Supplied)
Updated 10 December 2018
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Leading Emirates health care, education investor eyes Saudi Arabia

LONDON: Since launching Foundation Holdings in 2016, Abhishek Sharma has scoured the GCC and India for investment opportunities.

Now, the prominent UAE health care and education investor is closing in on targets in Saudi Arabia.

“We are eyeing two interesting investments in KSA at the moment. Saudi Arabia accounts for between 40 percent and
50 percent of the GCC’s GDP (gross domestic product), so it cannot be overlooked.” 

He added: “The reforms taking place are truly fantastic … the exuberance and the youth … the pace of change.” 

Foundation aims to invest $550 million in GCC and Indian companies by 2021, roughly evenly split between the two regions. Already there are two solid strings to Foundation’s bow; one is a venture called One Living, which involves an alliance with UAE real estate developer Bloom Holding to develop accommodation for teachers and doctors in the UAE. Secondly, it has established a health care operator called Right Health, acquiring almost three dozen clinics and a pharmacy.

Sharma admits to being both idealistic and commercially minded. 

“Education flows in my blood. My mother was a teacher in Dubai and then she went on to become the vice dean of the American College in Dubai,” he said.

Sharma said the GCC’s K-12 education sector was expected to be worth $26 billion by 2023, almost double what it is now, according to Boston Consulting. 

“In KSA alone the K-12 market will catapult from being worth $5 billion this year to $12 billion by 2023.”

Sharma kicked off his career at Lehman Brothers in the US, and has worked for Merrill Lynch and Sun Capital where he built up an expertise in telecoms and media. Education is a passion for him.

“At Foundation we have always believed that the biggest walls are not with North and South Korea, or the US versus China, it’s actually due to fact that 50 million kids don’t go to school, 250 million go to failing schools, poor teachers, inadequate infrastructure and so on,” he said.

“The gaps we see in education  — and health care is in the same boat  — are massive. When I looked at these markets, I became more intrigued both personally and commercially.”

Sharma is a former head of education investments at Dubai-based Amanat Holdings and held a senior position at Ithmar Capital, where he helped to list Abu Dhabi health care provider Al Noor Hospitals Group in London in 2013 (Ithmar was a significant shareholder in Al Noor). 

Since his return to the UAE from the US in 2008, Sharma has noted that a dozen health care groups have listed on local exchanges. His prediction is that 10 years out, education will take off in a similar way. “In the GCC, education is on the cusp of a golden run and we will see household names coming to market,” said Sharma.

Foundation invests on behalf of six family offices across the Arabian Gulf, and its shareholders include the Sharma family and chairman Murtadha Ahmed Sultan, also a director of Omani engineering firm WJ Towell. Foundation likes to take at least a 25 percent stake in target companies for between $15 million and $40 million. 

Sharma said Foundation tends to be an active shareholder with the idea being to grow a company, fix things that may need fixing, grow revenues, work with management in a constructive way and prepare it for an IPO down the line.

Until now, most of Foundation’s investments have been in the GCC, where “because of the cycle, we have found some very attractive opportunities, prices were competitive and we were able to move quickly.”

Sharma is a glass-half-full sort of person. Is the world a more troubled place than 20 to 30 years ago? 

“Yes, the headlines are more negative these days. But there have been phenomenal advances, in medical technology — people are healthier and live longer. The same with education. The pace of progress and the technology means youngsters have more opportunity to grasp things compared to what I had when I was growing up in India.”

He added: “I always believe that my best day is tomorrow, the day that hasn’t come,” he said.

“People forget the world is changing in a positive way. I personally don’t believe we are in a more troubled place. I feel the borders today are more like nets, not physical borders of earlier times. Today people and youth are exposed to things very quickly.” 

In days gone by, he said, people thought what was happening in Korea had nothing to do them so didn’t really care. 

“But what happens in Korea does matter because it impacts China, it impacts the US and ultimately impacts GCC and emerging markets,” said Sharma.

“And for me and Foundation, I better know what’s happening because it affects my investment strategy.”

The way Sharma sees it, among the big issues going forward is how to get kids educated.  

“The biggest walls today are about inequality, poverty. If you solve those problems a lot of other things would, hopefully, more easily fall into place.” 

Few would argue with that.


Time to tear down Mideast trade barriers, Davos panel hears

Updated 23 January 2019
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Time to tear down Mideast trade barriers, Davos panel hears

  • Mohammad Al-Tuwaijri, Saudi minister of economy and planning, said a move to ease movement of traffic across the border could be followed elsewhere
  • Majid Al Futtaim CEO Alain Bejjani: Now there’s this seriousness between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, I hope it gets to frictionless trade

DAVOS: Amid global trade wars and the rise of protectionism, Middle East economic and business leaders on Tuesday issued a clarion call for the exact opposite: To ease customs restrictions in the region.
A panel at Davos heard how an agreement between Saudi Arabia and the UAE to boost cooperation — including the reduction of obstacles to trade across the shared border — could be a blueprint for the wider region.
Mohammad Al-Tuwaijri, Saudi minister of economy and planning, said a move to ease movement of traffic across the border — partly through the use of technology — could be followed elsewhere. “We want to establish a reference for others to follow,” he said.
Alain Bejjani, CEO of retail and leisure group Majid Al Futtaim, said “frictionless trade” would give the region a boost.
“Now there’s this seriousness between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, I hope it gets to frictionless trade,” he told Arab News on the sidelines of the Davos forum.
Bejjani declined to say whether that would involve a customs union, a common market or a common currency. Given the imposition of trade tariffs between the US and China, and the rise of Brexit, globalization — something espoused by many Davos delegates — is seen as on the wane.
But Bejjani said breaking down barriers in the Middle East could help it better compete with Western Europe and the US.
“For the past almost century now… we’ve been ingeniously working on making sure we put barriers across the Arab world. The reality is we have a market that’s as big as most of the largest markets in the world… if we’re smart enough to work together,” he told the Davos panel.
Khalid Al-Rumaihi, chief executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board, agreed that Saudi-UAE cooperation was “a great template” for others to follow.
Aside from “opening up” Middle East markets, Al-Rumaihi said harmonizing regulation in the region would also be beneficial to businesses and entrepreneurs.
“If the rules are changing in each country, if they’re not harmonized, it’s very difficult… for an entrepreneur (to understand) the regulatory environment. So they don’t scale very quickly, and that’s something we need to solve,” he said. Talk of freer trade within the Middle East is especially relevant when it comes to the Palestinian territories, which are subject to Israeli occupation and blockade.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said freer movement and a reduction of duties would help the economy grow.
“We need to see our products being waived (of) customs,” he said. “We need mobility — we’re under occupation.”