I met with more than a dozen Dubai-based senior executives from multinational companies across several sectors. Five important issues emerged during our conversations:
1. Improving performance in Africa is the focus of MEA strategic planning
During my visit to Dubai, 70% of the companies that I met were focused on improving their performance in Africa. Interestingly, most of the companies use Dubai as a hub for Sub-Saharan Africa. The UAE is already an established regional hub for the Middle East, because of the advanced commercial infrastructure, air travel links to rest of the world (Gulf flights can reach 2/3 of world’s population in 8 hours), access to skilled, albeit expensive expatriate labor, and relative ease of anticipating local costs.
2. MNCs are frustrated increasingly by the procurement process in Saudi Arabia
Many executives cited an extended and unclear procurement process as an obstacle to business growth. There are new procedures and staff in many ministries, in part to ensure compliance, and this has led to more delays in the approval process. SAGIA, Saudi Arabia’s investment agency, recently announced a new fast-track option for processing foreign investor applications and I will investigate how it is being implemented during my upcoming visit to the market.
3. Executives are still mystified by MENA’s frontier markets, particularly Algeria and Iraq
In Algeria, companies often work through a local partner, but have underperformed due to a difficult operating environment. Many are watching whether President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s fourth term will usher in an era of growth or support stagnation. In Iraq, most companies do not have enough info to navigate the market appropriately and find it difficult to make the case for resources given dramatic headlines that appear in Western news outlets every day.
4. Investment in Iran is still a taboo topic for many despite the market’s huge potential
Iran has the 2nd largest population in MENA and among the largest oil and gas reserves in the world. Yet the market opportunity still seems too far off for many MNCs, especially those with US headquarters. Interestingly, I met with a consumer-oriented Danish company that is trying to get expansion plans approved by their board. The executives are worried about rising competition from American companies if a nuclear deal is reached in July.
5. Companies are not worried enough about MENA’s vulnerability to a Chinese slowdown
China’s growth trajectory was not a concern for many executives until I connected the dots to the overall health of MENA economies. The Middle East supplies nearly 50% of China’s oil. Strong Chinese demand drove an oil price surge that increased GDP in GCC countries by $1 trillion between 2003 and 2013. In addition, 15% of MENA exports go to China and Chinese-based companies are major foreign investors in the region. As a result, executives need to factor into their strategic plans how a slowdown in China (below 7% annual growth) would hurt economic activity in MENA.