WISDOM RECEIVED

UAE, Dubai 2015 | FINANCE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, CEO of Mashreq Bank, on Dubai's recent past, its prominent global reputation, and Islamic finance.

HE Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair
BIOGRAPHY
HE Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair is the CEO of Mashreq Group and is the member of the Board of Directors of Abdullah Al Ghurair Group of Companies, with operations spanning more than 20 countries and business roots stretching back half a century. In 2012, His Excellency was appointed as Chairman of UAE Banking Federation. He has held various dignitary positions, which have had an impact both regionally and internationally. His unprecedented experience in the banking industry specifically and in the business industry generally makes him one of the most well-known personalities, both locally and regionally. He was elected as Speaker of the United Arab Emirates Federal National Council (UAE Parliament) for a tenure of four years, which ended in February 2011. He was recognized many times by leading awards, conferences, and seminars, and is a five-time recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award.

How would you characterize your success in Dubai?

Our success in Dubai is clearly because of HH Sheikh Mohammad's vision. He liberated the government offices and made Dubai an attractive place to work, live, and invest. We have approached Dubai with a holistic rather than a fragmented solution. Putting all of that together has really energized Dubai. It was always a hub in the region, but we have managed to grow it onto a much larger scale. It has been a bit of a rollercoaster at times, but the Emirate's economy is open to the world. This is a result of it being an open economy, and we have developed the agility and ability so that when we suffer a global shock, so we know we are capable of bouncing back. If you look at the UAE or Dubai stock markets in 2013, we have bounced back better than any other exchange. That resilience is in the economy. That is what makes Dubai a dynamic place.

How has Mashreq Bank played a role in making Dubai's economy more resilient following the financial crisis?

As the oldest bank in the country, we have enjoyed witnessing the progress of the economy and the challenges faced by the Emirate over time. Mashreq has always believed in Dubai's direction, and we have always continued supporting our clients during the difficult times. We have never stopped doing business, and our clients have long histories of operating in the country. We believed they would overcome these challenges, and they did. Mashreq's success is because of our customers' success and the overall strength of the economy.

Where are the next steps for the bank?

We are aiming to create a better customer experience. At the end of the day, most banks will offer the same products and services. What will differentiate the banks is the experience that the customer goes through when they do their banking transactions. And this experience cannot be copied overnight. If the customer has a great experience, word of mouth and advertising will encourage more customers to come to us, be they retail, SME, or corporate clients. People will know that we mean business.

How would you describe Dubai's role as a leading city worldwide today?

Dubai has been recognized as one of the leading cities in the world. If you look on the airlines side, Dubai's airport is by far now the largest airport in terms of international passengers. If you look at Dubai's ports, we are the third largest transshipment port in the world. We have established ourselves quickly as a prominent hub for business. If you look at regional offices for multinationals, there is no choice for them but Dubai. From Morocco to Oman, the only logical place is Dubai. The free trade zones will attract people to set up their businesses, and we've also tried to focus on a sector-based approach. We try to promote the finance sector with DIFC, while for media we have Dubai Media City, and a host of other free zones to allow people ownership and a place to set up their factories. Basically, we adapt our free trade zones to a sector focus and in line with the sector's regulations in order to make the investment climate friendly and conducive to business.

What is your vision on the HH Sheikh Mohammed's goal to make Dubai the capital of the Islamic economy?

It is achievable. We have the market and the know-how here. We are bringing all the segments together as a product, including banking, takaful, and food. We are looking at what it will take, for example, to gain certification for halal food. Anyone can claim it, but we want to make an authenticated Islamic center for certification of halal products. We think it's achievable. We have a track record. When we set our eyes on something, we tend to achieve it. Whatever we have said, we have been able to achieve it and compete on an international scale.

What will be the impact of the Al Etihad Credit Bureau on the financial industry?

A credit bureau is long overdue. We have done a lot of things here in the UAE except the credit bureau. Finally, we have it. I think it will slow down lending by banks because people will discover how much has been borrowed or over borrowed. Long term, it will protect everyone—borrowers, banks, and the economy—from a crisis. We will be doing proper lending, particularly on the retail and SME side.

What is your outlook in the coming year?

I am pretty optimistic. We now have a strong currency that is linked to the dollar, which makes it even better for our economy. It may impact some tourists, but our tourist numbers YoY are growing. Because of the infrastructure, the environment, the logistics, and the legal system we have in Dubai, it is one of the most attractive destinations in the region. There is no other city that can compete with us. Everything is available here, and the Emirate boasts strong infrastructure and lifestyle options. You can send your kids to Russian, French, Japanese, or Korean schools, and the range of entertainment and sports options is unrivaled. That kind of diversity is difficult to find in other cities. With regard to the turmoil in the region, we can say that we have gotten used to it. We navigate our country through these geopolitical obstacles and leverage our strengths to come out on top. There is no safer destination for investment than the UAE and Dubai. Countries that are blighted by conflict often see their businesses moving and starting again in Dubai. Many firms from around the Arab world have moved their headquarters to Dubai.