Dubai Makes Its (Pre-Pandemic) Investment Pitch in Atlanta
The focus may have been on its gleaming skyscrapers, upscale homes and a (potentially postponed) world expo in October, but a presentation on Dubai March 12 showed that the emirate has a few business sectors, especially in technology, that could complement Atlanta well.
The “Demystifing Dubai” seminar was held at the Commerce Club downtown March 12, the same day Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp first announced social-distancing guidelines to stem the spread of Covid-19 in the state.
Dounia Fadi, chief operating officer of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices’ office in Dubai, made the trip over to lead the seminar at the behest of Melinda McBrayer, a local representative of the real estate and relocation firm with 1,500 offices globally.
Ms. Fadi, a Moroccan-born real-estate pro who has lived in Dubai for 15 years, doesn’t speak officially for the government, but selling Dubai as a destination means more business for her firm. Before touring various BHHS offices worldwide, she familiarized herself with Dubai’s pitch to international investors and got presentation materials directly from the government.
That’s partially because she wanted to bust myths about the Middle East, noting that being a woman in her adoptive home is a big part of her success, contrary to what outsiders might expect.
“There are things that people believe about the Middle East that are not true, and I wanted to break those stereotypes,” she told Global Atlanta in an interview.
At the time of the event, concern over the coronavirus had begun to stall travel plans, with representatives from Dubai Expo 2020 and Emaar Properties, the developer behind the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building), having to bow out of the trip.
But the organizers, including Ms. McBrayer and local firm 23 Consulting LLC, soldiered on, attracting a slate of local speakers armed with tips, technical information and testimonials to round out Ms. Fadi’s overview.
Dubai is well-known as a global business center, boasting the third busiest airport in the world after Atlanta and Beijing, with nearly all of its 86.4 million passengers coming from abroad.
But few have heard of the accessible business opportunities that exist beyond tales of opulence, Ms. Fadi said. She noted that residential property investors that spend 1 million Emirati dirhams, about $270,000, on properties there can gain a renewable three-year residency permit. Even those who don’t plan to live in their new homes could expect 5-10 percent returns on rentals — according to pre-pandemic trends, of course.
Beyond that, Dubai is a hub for global trade, with world-class infrastructure and ample free zones that have built up its reputation as a waypoint for goods traversing the global economy. Nearly 40 percent of its economy is based on wholesale/retail trade and transport and storage.
Foreign companies are ostensibly welcomed in the United Arab Emirates, which sits at No. 11 on the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings. Panelists outlined at the event the various structures companies can use when setting up, from an LLC with a physical office and a local sponsor (a 51 percent partner on paper) to an entity within a free zone that can operate without boots on the ground.
Amrik Sahni of Lamex Group’s Atlanta office described the poultry importer’s business experience in Dubai as a “breeze,” noting that the global company supplies halal chicken to restaurants and airlines there.
“If you ever have chicken on board Emirates Airlines, just think of me,” he said to laughter from an audience that had just finished a chicken entree.
But many foreign businesses, including some based in metro Atlanta, have complained that under Dubai’s glitzy surface is an opaque legal system in part based on Shariah law that is unevenly enforced and disadvantages expatriates unfamiliar with local customs, especially when it comes to business disputes.
Ms. Fadi said most legal woes emerge when the companies lack an on-the-ground presence, fail when performing due diligence or pick the wrong partners or representatives.
Where Atlanta Comes In: Technology and Smart Cities
With its growing tech sector and status as a hub for the payments industry, Atlanta has a lot to offer Dubai, which has installed special incentives for innovators to up its technology game and grow its reputation as a “smart city” with connected infrastructure.
“I always call it the city of the future because they are always ahead of the game. They are very adaptable to what’s happening around them,” Ms. Fadi said, noting the growth in payment technology, cybersecurity and services offered by the government: all areas where Atlanta companies excel.
Transport is another differentiator. Dubai was the site of the first test flight of the Volocopter, a flying taxi developed by Germany’s Daimler. The two-seater vehicle, which looks like a cross between a helicopter and a drone, was showed off at the Mercedes-Benz innovation center in Atlanta in 2018. Old-fashioned earthbound taxis too must innovate, thanks to a 2016 mandate that a quarter of Dubai’s road capacity be devoted to autonomous vehicles by 2030. Dubai is also vying to be among the first cities to install Hyperloop One technology, the brainchild of Tesla founder Elon Musk, which promises super-fast transport through vacuum tubes.
Ms. Fadi pointed to recent startup exits as evidence of the city’s tech vibrancy. Ride-sharing giant Uber acquired Careem for $3.1 billion, while Amazon bought online retailer Souq.com for $580 million. She added that Dubai is not just a hub for the UAE. More than 2.4 billion people live within a four-hour flight, and many companies run their Africa business out of the emirate.
Another panelist, Alex Wieczorek of WCI Holdings, pointed out the ease of raising money through crowdfunding on platforms like Eureeca, Beehive and Zoomaal.
During her brief trip, Ms. Fadi also got a crash course in Atlanta economics from Tom Cunningham, the chief economist at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, who showed during a brief introduction at the event how the city’s industry diversity is a strength. The city is home to the first global Smart City Expo outside Barcelona and has been carving out a niche in that sector.
“What I was told in Dubai is that Atlanta is about agriculture and food production, but it’s fintech and technology now I’m hearing, which is a huge interest for Dubai,” she said.
She hopes to follow up on the event, potentially bringing another delegation here or helping Atlanta companies connect with resources in the government or private sector.
Before the event, she was recognized with a resolution by the Georgia state representatives Matt Dubnik and Matt Dollar, Republicans from Gainesville and Marietta, respectively. See the resolution below.