SPEED-SAILING THE HIGH SEAS

Dubai 2018 | DIPLOMACY | GUEST SPEAKER

TBY talks to Juan Carlos Varela, President of Panama, on the country's diplomatic footprint, the importance of participating in Expo 2020, and both countries' respective leadership roles as regional entrepôts.

 Juan Carlos Varela
BIOGRAPHY
Juan Carlos Varela was elected President of Panama in 2014 as the candidate of the "El Pueblo Primero" alliance. Formed by the Panameñista Party and the Popular Party, the alliance had the support of the independent sectors of the country. In the private sector, he led the growth of Varela Hermanos, serving as director from 1985 onward and as Executive Vice President until January 2008. In 2009, he was elected Vice President of Panama. After just two years in office, he fulfilled a wide variety of his campaign promises, including but not limited to the Program 100 at 70, increasing the minimum wage, the Curundú Project, and the Universal Scholarship.

How have relations between the UAE and Panama evolved since you took office in 2014?

As soon as I won the election, I decided to establish an embassy in the UAE in order to expand our diplomatic footprint. Since then, we sent an ambassador and have exchanged a number of missions. The Dubai Chamber of Commerce came to Panama and wants to open an office. Additionally, we plan on bringing a business delegation to the UAE and have confirmed that Panama will participate in Expo 2020. We are signing different agreements aimed at protecting investment and supporting tourism between our countries. Going forward, the main challenge we face is ensuring that we add value to all of the cargo that comes through the canal. This would not only ensure Panama's position as a shipping and logistics hub, but would also allow firms and countries to maximize their industrial and economic potential.

What strategic priorities and areas of cooperation between Panama and the UAE are moving forward?

Trade is a vital component of relations between Panama and Dubai and can be further leveraged to support both nations. If we are able to establish a direct flight, trade could expand a great deal. Panama and the UAE both represent international success stories; both are global hubs with air connectivity and financial centers that play an important role in the global economy. Each place is also a gateway to their respective regions: the UAE for the Middle East, India, and Africa, and Panama for Central and Latin America, with the canal the most modern and visible symbol of our ability to connect the world. Moreover, our airport serves 15 million passengers and has 15,000 employees, which we seek to grow to 30-45,000 in the coming years. In terms of investment, we are trying to invite the UAE's investment fund to bring capital into Panama, vitalizing sectors like energy, infrastructure, and real estate.

What are the biggest lessons Panama can learn from the UAE?

The UAE is a country that promotes peace, dialog, tolerance, and investment protection and, as such, has a great future ahead. A key area we can learn from is immigration. Changing regulations to drive immigration would be vital, including visa requirements, so that we can support expanded tourism. The UAE is a country with a beautiful soul that makes a great effort to ensure that the people who are building it are happy and taken care of. In Panama, we changed from restricted visas to stamp visas, and I hope that one day we can open the country entirely, doing away with visas. This is, of course, a process that takes time. From a business point of view, immigration reform would facilitate a smooth transition for international SMEs looking to enter the country and bring their expertise. By having nationals from more than 150 countries working together in the Emirates, it sends a strong message to countries that are currently closing their borders and restricting access. You cannot define people by their country of origin, and the UAE is doing an excellent job illustrating this.

What would be your message for UAE investors interested in Panama?

Panama's FDI has grown by more than USD4.5 billion every year in recent years, coming from Asia, the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Thanks to our robust regulatory system, investing in our country is very secure, profitable, and safe. In this sense, we have directed more than USD500 million in the fight against corruption. Panama's USD65 billion GDP has been growing steadily for the past 10 years, averaging 6-7% growth per year. Unemployment is less than 5%, and inflation is less than 1%. Like the UAE, we have benefited from the growing presence of international companies that are using our geographic position. As proof of our extremely business-friendly environment, 150 international companies from all industries and service specialties have moved their headquarters to Panama.