An immensely positive and informative interview with Bilal Sabouni, CEO of American Business Council (ABC) of Dubai & Northern Emirates, where he opens up about UAE-US relationship, the benefits of working together, and how ABC’s role is crucial to the entire process.
Could you please provide an overview of the US–UAE business relationship in terms of the value of trade as well as other key areas of cooperation?
The US-UAE business relationship stems from longstanding and historic formal diplomatic relations that the two countries have enjoyed for over four decades. Despite being halfway around the world, the US was the third nation to formally recognize the UAE after it was established as a sovereign nation in 1971.
The current value of goods exports from the US to the UAE amount to nearly US $23 Billion in 2015 (excluding services). The UAE has been the single largest export market in the Middle East for the sixth consecutive year. It is also among the top 20 trading partners of the US globally and has the highest foreign direct investment in the US of all countries in the world.
We have nearly 1,500 US companies with a direct or indirect presence in Dubai, approximately 35,000 Americans living and working across Dubai and the Northern Emirates and roughly 50,000-60,000 US citizens residing across the UAE.
Key industries include Healthcare & Medical Devices, Education & Training, Oil and Gas, Energy, Engineering and Construction, Safety & Security, Environment, Auto, Information Technology and Franchising, Aerospace & Aviation, Machinery, Food and Agricultural – a very wide range of goods and services.
Which aspects of UAE’s relationship with the US are receiving the most emphasis and are expected to grow in future?
An IMF Report recently concluded that despite persistent lower oil prices and weakened investor appetite, the UAE’s large buffers and diligence in their diversification strategy has contained most of the negative effects that otherwise would have prevailed. Over the medium term, economic activity is forecasted to improve and grow as the growth of both the non-hydrocarbons is projected to increase to over 4%. Coupled with stronger oil prices and a ramp up in external demand and private investment ahead of Expo 2020, we see a very positive economic landscape on the horizon.
Innovation, technology, transportation, energy & sustainability, security & defense and education are all receiving a high level of emphasis and are expected to grow in the future, but as I mentioned earlier, other key industries such as healthcare, finance & specifically Islamic Finance, as well as many of the other sectors and industries in which the US has strength are also being prioritized.
Are you campaigning for a UAE-US FTA and what are the issues to be overcome in this regard?
This is not a new topic and has been a talking point since 2005 after the US and the UAE signed the historic Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in 2004. Due to a variety of reasons and issues (some not related to the process at all) this has been delayed and subsequently put on hold.
A FTA with the USA would assist the base metal sector, gold and jewelry, chemicals, plastics and textiles, and we are generally supportive of such a development, but it is likely that the US will be trading with the UAE within a broader regional GCC framework. In the absence of an FTA, on March 1st 2012, the US & the UAE established an Economic Policy Dialogue (EPD), framed to meet twice a year, alternately in the US and in the UAE.
The EPD’s purpose is to serve as an umbrella for a number of new and ongoing initiatives that are aimed at deepening economic and commercial ties between the UAE and the US, including ways to streamline the visa process for UAE business people visiting the US, eliminate non-tariff trade barriers, facilitate direct investments in the economies of both countries, stimulate economic development and job creation in both countries.
Today, the UAE’s EPD with the US has evolved into a GCC initiative between the US and the six Arabian Gulf nations as a block.
In the areas of technology and innovation we know about the impact of the US on the world. Are there any areas where the UAE companies or government are influencing the US?
At the outset, you might think that most of the influence of technology and innovation comes from the US towards the UAE, but if you look more closely, you’ll find a wide range of examples of the reverse happening too.
Let’s first of all agree that a company or individual can never be number one by copying everything. I’d say the most that you can ever achieve is becoming number two. In order to overcome all competition and achieve the coveted top spot, innovation must take place. New technology and new thinking must be evident.
Two examples immediately come to mind: Emirates Airlines and Emaar. Emirates Airlines, launched in the same year as the American Business Council in 1985, is today by many measures a number one airline teaching the rest of the world how aviation is done. Emaar, founded in 1997, today is building and developing landmark and iconic structures and communities. They have built and own what is today the tallest building in the world, and they have announced an even taller tower to be completed in time for the Dubai Expo 2020. You don’t build and run these types of projects without innovative thinking.
Now to be fair, overall, the UAE is still very much a net importer of technology and innovation, but the government is taking very seriously the matter of building capacity to become an overall net exporter of technology and innovation.
In fact, with 2015 having been the “Year of Innovation” in the UAE, we observe giant investments and forward leaps in the UAE’s capacity and appetite for technology and innovation.
What are the goals and objectives of the ABC and how does it go about achieving them?
As the US Chamber of Commerce’s international affiliate based in Dubai for over 31 years, ABC Dubai’s mission is to enhance bilateral economic relations between the United States of America, the United Arab Emirates, and the wider region. We do this by supporting private sector growth by facilitating and fostering B2G relationships, B2B connections, and supporting B2C activity for our members. Other examples of our work include:
– Helping to make fortune 500 companies aware of new draft legislation and helping to connect them to key government officials.
– Helping US or UAE SMEs and entrepreneurs establish themselves or increase market share for expansion.
– Incorporating American and Emirati individuals in building the two communities closer by celebrating great American holidays together such as Independence Day, Thanksgiving, etc., leading to a happier, more satisfied and better connected country.
To achieve the above and our wider goals and missions, we rely heavily on our ability to act as an important and strategic resource for the UAE government to utilize, earning a positive reputation in the region. We continue to work closely with key government agencies on matters of mutual interest and benefit, while focusing on the improvement of the economic and commercial position of both the US and the UAE.
In the field of Public Policy, which organizations do you count as partners in the UAE that may have similar goals to yours?
In Public Policy, all organizations, private or public, large or small, new or well-established, are partners and help either directly or indirectly to further our goal of creating a vibrant economic & commercial environment which then benefits not only US trade and commerce, but also the overall economic climate which everyone ends up enjoying.
Similar to the US, other countries have their own trade bodies, and do a very good job of promoting their countries goods and services. At the US Embassy and Consulate we have Commercial & Economic Officers dedicated to ensuring a favorable environment to US interests and counseling US companies looking to enter the market or grow market share.
The UAE does a very good job of running their country and focusing the government’s overall effort into a single direction to achieve an overall goal. There are UAE government entities that we work closely with such as the Ministry of Economy, Dubai Chamber, Dubai Economic Department, Dubai Economic Council, Dubai FDI, and many, many other government agencies and counterpart Chambers across Sharjah and the rest of the Northern Emirates.
Your members are an influential group within the UAE business community. How do you leverage their influence to be a force for good within the community?
The American Business Council was the first Council of its kind to be established in the UAE and we are an international affiliate of the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
We are the oldest and one of the most influential international trade groups established in the UAE, but with that comes a great deal of responsibility to ensure that everything we do is not only in the best interest of our members and US-business, but perhaps more importantly, also in the best interest of the local community and the general environment that we live and work in.
In past years, we have ensured to give back through various CSR initiatives and donations to local charities. For example, the staff of the American Business Council recently engaged with the Dubai Center for Special Needs and donated thousands of dirhams worth of toys and goods to support their activities.
It’s crucial that we do this and stay rooted to our local community. This is something we and all our members feel strongly about.