ADGM anticipates demand for fintech incubator

Abu Dhabi Global Market, the UAE’s new financial free zone, is expecting a rush of applications to join its new incubator for fin­ancial technology (fintech) businesses, the first in the Middle East, which is now formally open for applications.

ADGM yesterday announced that its fintech Regulatory Laboratory (RegLab) is up and running, after new laws were drafted for the initiative and following consultation with the public and potential industry partners,

In March, the ADGM chairman Ahmed Al Sayegh set the ambition for the market to be the fintech capital of the region. Fintech is a growing sector within the financial services business, and could be worth US$12 billion globally by 2018, industry experts have estimated.

Richard Teng, chief executive of the ADGM regulator, which has drafted the rulebook for the new project, said: “We are very excited to launch the ADGM Reg­Lab and it is encouraging that interest has been pouring in since we announced our plans.” The first batch of applicants has until the end of January to apply for membership.

The RegLab regime has been tailored for new entrants into the business and for established institutions keen to innovate in the sector. For a per­iod of two years, they are subject to a lighter regulatory burden than institutions seeking a full financial licence at ADGM, but can opt for full membership after that.

Similar fintech incubator hubs exist in London and Singapore, but RegLab is the first in the Middle East region.

In addition to smaller entrepreneurial fintech start-ups, it is believed several big UAE banks are considering basing their fintech operations on ADGM’s Al Maryah Island headquarters.

Separately, yesterday Switzerland’s cabinet proposed new light-touch regulations for fintech companies aimed at bolstering business and competitiveness. Switzerland lags the likes of Britain and Singapore when it comes to fintech, according to Reuters.

Firms specialising in crypto-currencies, for instance, say financial regulations must change for them to thrive in places like Zug, dubbed “Crypto Valley”.

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It’s open season at the Dubai International Financial Centre.

Round about the end of October, the staff at the various cafes and restaurants that line the terrace overlooking the Gate building decide en masse to throw open the shutters that have been closed for the past six months or more to keep out the summer heat.

The result is very pleasant indeed. The atmosphere behind the big glass shutters, even though it’s efficiently air conditioned, can get stale and stuffy in the long hot months, and it’s good to have air circulating around the centre again.

Monday was still a little humid, but yesterday the temperature had dropped a few degrees and there was a pleasant fresh breeze blowing through what I always regard as the main outside thoroughfare of DIFC – the terrace area between the bridge over from Gate Village that ends up in the covered piazza with Costa Coffee on one side, Gramercy on the other and with Bateel and Al Mandaloun just around the corner.

It is said that if you sit for one hour at the Café de la Paix, the old brasserie in the Opera district of Paris, you will meet at least three people that you know, and this is how I feel about this part of the DIFC.

I was hovering around there waiting to head off to lunch with a contact in Zuma, and was just finishing a phone call when I spotted somebody I had been looking to talk to for some time.

This is an Emirati financier who is well known in the centre and in the emirate, and I’d been wanting to talk to him about the debt burden Dubai faces in the next couple of years.

There are several big maturities looming, which could add up to tens of billions of dollars in repayments and restructuring. I’d heard some talk about one in particular – I won’t name it because it’s not really at that stage yet.

My financier was happy to grab a coffee and I got a speed-date briefing on the situation.

There are some big debts to be repaid, but there is nothing like the level of anxiety there was in 2009.

The banks are better capitalised and managed, there is a bankruptcy regime in place, and the global financial situation is nowhere near as serious as it was back then.

“But yes, I have heard that one early stage restructuring is not going entirely to plan,” he said, confirming the name that I’d heard. A story for another day, I guess.

After I’d finished my chat, the weather was pleasant enough to have a stroll over to the site of the new Gate Avenue.

This is the biggest DIFC project, and probably the final piece of the property development jigsaw in the free zone. It will link the Gate building in a multimillion-dollar development of retail, leisure and commercial facil­ities virtually all the way down to the beginning of the Emaar Square district.

I’m pleased to be able to report that work is well under way, with some quite busy looking groundwork and preparation, ahead of a deadline for the first phase at the end of next year.

It was announced last week that Habtoor Leighton, an old development partner of DIFC, has got the contract for the work, so I guess that was the reason behind the spurt of activity. Expect to see big progress there in the cooler weather of the next six months.

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Goldilocks fund first to launch on Abu Dhabi Global Market

The first fund has been launched on the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), in a move that is likely to herald a fresh burst of activity from the capital’s new financial free zone.

Abu Dhabi Financial Group (ADFG), the fast-growing investment manager, is to manage the Goldilocks Investment Company through the ADGM platform. Four other collective investment funds have also been registered with ADGM by their managers.

ADGM’s chairman, Ahmed Al Sayegh, said the market was also considering licence applications from 12 more financial companies, which are being processed, and that the number of companies listed there now stood at 170, including non-financial regulated firms.

“This endorsement is noteworthy given the backdrop of slow global economic growth, volatile market conditions and the reduction of global footprint by financial institutions,” he said.

The Dh735 million Goldilocks fund, set up 18 months ago, is a new kind of investment vehicle for the UAE, its chief executive, Jassim Alseddiqi, said.

“The fund aims to seek out equities with a compelling risk-reward profile, where our involvement can act as a catalyst to increase value for all stakeholders by way of improvement of management trends and governance, among other strategies,” he said.

He said this was a “pioneering investment strategy called ‘constructivism’ – or constructive activism – a first for the region”.

Activist investor funds are common – and sometimes controversial – in western markets where they sometimes seek to impose a new strategy on underperforming managements.

“We will be discussing with the boards to see how we can help in restructuring and business development,” he said.

It is believed the new fund, which will be open to regional and international investors but will only invest in equities on the UAE exchanges, will eventually be traded on a special platform being set up in the ADGM.

ADFG, which has US$4.7 billion of assets under management, has invested in high-profile situations before. Earlier this year, it bought a 48.3 per cent stake in Shuaa Capital, the investment bank formerly controlled by the Government of Dubai. It is also a 10 per cent shareholder in Gulf Finance House, the Bahrain-based and Dubai-listed Islamic financial institution.

Investments such as this, Mr Alseddiqi said, had helped the Goldilocks fund to show a 101 per cent increase in value since the start of this year, compared with single-digit increases from the Adu Dhabi Securities Exchange and the Dubai Financial Market.

“Through Goldilocks, ADFG will continue to seek out opportunities in equity markets where it can positively transform a company’s fortune, revitalising the business strategy and providing the impetus to spur it on the future success,” he said.

On his decision to list the Goldilocks fund on ADGM, Mr Alseddiqi said: “We are an Abu Dhabi institution and we have a high regard for the credibility of ADGM. There is real wealth in Abu Dhabi, which is the hub of banking in the GCC.”

Mr Al Sayegh said: “Home-grown entities and stakeholders have always been one of the vital and sustaining pillars of international financial centres. Linked by the mission of advancing Abu Dhabi’s plans and economic ambition, we will explore all opportunities to support our local institutions to become regional and global champions.”

He said: “With ADFG as our first fund, we are pleased to have in total five domiciled funds established to date. In addition, 24 special-purpose vehicles were set up in the past year, with ADS Securities among the early adopters.”

It is believed at least one big Abu Dhabi institution is considering setting up in the ADGM jurisdiction on Al Maryah Island.

The four other funds that have gained admission to ADGM are: the Hospitality Property Fund, Logistics Reit, The Residential Reit and Sportativa.

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Autism Rocks puts on a spectacular Diwali show

I’d never been to a proper Diwali bash before, so it was with great anticipation that I headed off with Mrs Kane to the glittering environs of the Palazzo Versace hotel in Dubai last Friday for an early celebration of the Hindu festival of light.

The event was being hosted by the Indian businessman Sanjay Shah and his wife, Usha. But it was no ordinary Diwali event, as I soon learnt. This one was being held in honour of the Autism Rocks organisation, which Mr Shah set up to raise awareness of the disorder that affects millions of children and teenagers around the world, leading to communication and learning difficulties.

Autism is a devastating illness for the sufferers, of course, but also for the parents, who discover at about the age of two that their precious child has a life-changing condition that will require specialist care and treatment for many years, with no proven cure.

The Shahs went through this trauma when their son Nikhil showed symptoms at an early age.

Their reaction was to provide for him the best support and care, and to try to help others who might find themselves in the same position but who might not be so well equipped to deal with it. The result was the Autism Rocks Support Centre in Dubai Healthcare City, a much-needed facility as autism is not recognised for insurance-funded care in the UAE.

Their other reaction was to launch Autism Rocks, an international celebration of music, to raise awareness of the problem. Autism Rocks plays in the Shahs’ native London and in their adopted Dubai, and has staged some of the biggest names in rock and pop.

Next year in Dubai, Autism Rocks will pull off perhaps its biggest coup, with the reunited Guns N’ Roses rock band playing at its arena on Al Ain road.

I doubt, though, that even frontman singer Axl Rose and guitarist Slash will beat the show put on at the Versace.

It was a spectacular multicoloured celebration of Indian culture, with an exuberant dance show by the Maayavi Dance Drama Concept, followed by live performances from singers Himesh Reshammiya and Kanika Kapoor.

When the whole ensemble got on stage for the rousing finale, the atmosphere was so infectious I was almost tempted to join the boisterous crowd of diners who jumped up to celebrate with them. Mrs Kane advised against it, remarking that an elderly gent in a dinner jacket would look just slightly out of place in such a gathering.

And indeed we did look strange, the westerners in the audience who followed the dinner dress formalities. A mixture of diplomats, former military types and businessmen tottering around the Versace ballroom looking very uncomfortable in black tie and cuffs, while the Indian men looked super-cool in formal Nehru-type jackets. It was less noticeable with the women, who always dress colourfully, of course, but even the most glamorous European lady found it hard to match the eye-dazzling colours and jewellery of the Indian women.

In the middle of it all, before the night got too late, young Nikhil also seemed to be enjoying himself in the kaleidoscope of colours. The lad, now seven years old, earlier took the stage to show off his arithmetical skills, to the obvious delight of his parents.

He was self-confident and assured, proof that with the right care and support, and the loving attention of your parents and siblings, you can overcome anything.

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A wise man once said “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”, meaning negotiation was infinitely preferable to destructive confrontation. The leaders of the Civil Society Coalition, the organisation that aims to protect the rights of diamond workers and their dependents in the multibillion dollar gems trade, should take that adage to heart.

For the past year, CSC has been boycotting the UAE’s chairmanship of the Kimberley Process, the institution set up to bring order to the international trade in the precious stones and in particular to prevent “blood diamonds” – gems that originate in areas of civil conflict – from entering the global market.

Specifically, the boycott has meant 11 African non-governmental organisations have not taken part in meetings in Dubai and elsewhere that discussed crucial matters: readmission of certain countries to the trade; valuation mechanisms for rough diamonds; and the challenge from synthetic gems. These issues affect the lives of millions of Africans, but their voices have not been heard.

Earlier this week, the designated KP representative of one of the 11 – an NGO from the Democratic Republic of Congo – decided it was time to end this blinkered attitude and told the UAE he was going to take up the offer to attend the big event of the year, the KP Plenary meeting in Dubai next month.

Surely it is time for others to follow.

The CSC is a key part of the diamond business, recognised as one of the three KP “pillars” when that organisation was set up, along with producing countries and corporates. But it appears to have fallen under the influence of one particular organisation – the Partnership Africa Canada (Pac) – which insists on enforcing the boycott.

When the UAE was awarded the chairmanship of KP – in recognition of Dubai’s growing importance as a diamond trading centre – Pac referred to it as the “elephant in the room”, declared its chairmanship a “red line” and went on to denigrate the ethical standards of the UAE.

Despite this the KP chairman, in the person of Ahmed bin Sulayem, the chairman of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, which is home to the emirate’s diamond exchange, insisted his door was open to CSC members, who he invited to attend KP functions. Pac turned its back and sulked.

Mr bin Sulayem stepped up the pace of reform within the KP. To date, he has visited 12 African countries; started the process to bring Venezuela and Central African Republic back as diamond exporters; and launched initiatives aimed at getting a valuation standard for rough diamonds, the issue at the heart of Pac’s grievances regarding Dubai.

“The world needs to do better for Africa,” he said last week, announcing another initiative to put the KP under United Nations auspices.

The boycott has done nothing better for Africa at all. It freezes the continent out of the KP process. It robs civil society of a voice in the most important chambers of the diamond industry. It harms the very people civil society is supposed to defend.

The other members of the CSC – including Pac – should urgently rethink their pointless and self-destructive boycott.

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Pearl Initiative's chief is looking to translate ideals into concrete results

Carla Koffel reminds me that the Pearl Initiative is only in its sixth year, and I must admit I’m surprised. It seems to have been a feature of the UAE business landscape for at least the decade that I’ve been here.

“The achievements have been significant so far, but it’s reached a stage in its development where it needs to be taken to the next step,” says Ms Koffel, who took over in June as executive director of the organisation from the indefatigable Imelda Dunlop, and who has been easing herself into the role since then.

“The vision, objectives and mission remain the same. It was founded by Arabian Gulf businesses to promote good governance, but now it needs to expand further across the region and globally,” she says.

Pearl has always assumed a high profile among the governance initiatives launched in the region, perhaps because of the gravitas of its founders. Members of the ruling families of Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, the ubiquitous Badr Jafar of Crescent Enterprises and a board of governors comprising some of the region’s best-known movers and shakers have guaranteed Pearl is never far away from the headlines.

At the same time, its link with the United Nations (in alliance with the UN’s Global Compact initiative) and its presence at big global arenas like the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos have kept it firmly in the regional and global public eye.

Since 2010, it has pushed its message to more than 6,000 business leaders in a series of 65 round-table events across the region.

Tomorrow in Dubai, it hosts a regional forum on sustainable development that will get across its key messages: that business has to be responsible, accountable, transparent, but above all ethical in its forward thinking.

Attendees will be asked to sign a “business pledge” that includes the promise: “I commit to make every effort to ensure my business activities adhere to principles of ethical and responsible conduct when interacting with society.”

Fine words, and it is up to Ms Koffel to see that they get translated into practice during her term as head of the Pearl Initiative.

One crucial aspect of that will be to promote gender diversity in a region which has faced its own peculiar challenges over the role of women in business and the workplace. The UAE, which has a better record on gender policy that most of the rest of the Gulf, is well placed to make recommendations to the forum.

“The report on gender issues Pearl produced last year looked at what companies could do to promote policies that encourage a better work-life balance and higher achievement by women within a corporate. The next report will have case studies on how to implement those measures on the ground. The crucial issue is the culture within a company. Women have to feel there is a culture of support,” she says, pointing to several female business leaders who play a prominent role in the Pearl organisation, and on big corporate boards, who could be viewed as role models by the next aspiring generation of working women.

There will be a large female contingent at the forum who will hear how they can help the move towards sustainable growth.

“It’s been proven that companies that encourage sustainable policies attract more foreign investment and better talent, so it makes practical sense to promote it too,” she says.

The other segment of society she views as essential in the sustainability struggle is youth. Pearl is involved with about 25 universities around the Gulf region, and there will be a big student participation at this week’s forum.

“If our aim is to create prosperity and value for future generations, we obviously have to look at the problem of unemployment and I believe the private sector has a big role to play here,” she says.

Pearl’s message is aimed at private business, rather than the government sector, but Ms Koffel is aware that the two are interlinked, especially in the Gulf.

“There has to be more trust in the private sector and in the small to medium and entrepreneurial businesses. I see it not so much a matter of reducing the attractiveness of the public sector but of increasing that of private business. We need more ways to encourage partnership between public and private,” she says, citing health care as one area where government and private sector have worked together with mutual benefit.

There will be a significant presence from Saudi Arabia at the forum, with leading business figures explaining how far the kingdom has come, and could go, towards greater cooperation between public and private sectors – one of the key areas of the 2030 transformation strategy.

The other key watchwords of the Pearl Initiative are transparency and accountability, and Ms Koffel has firm views on their role in the move towards better corporate governance and sustainability. It is worth remembering in this context the environment in which Pearl was created in 2010, when the UAE and the region were just working through a financial crisis that, some argued, was caused at least in part by lack of financial transparency in the system.

“I think there is a much greater awareness now of what the private sector can do to address the issue of integrity. Over the past five years, it has been a real issue that has been looked at and tackled. We have looked at the problem in family firms and asked the question: how can large businesses impact the integrity of their total supply chain? It is not just about financial reporting, though that is important of course, but should be about getting integrity into a company’s very way of thinking,” she says.

Until now, her career has been about developing legal structures to promote good corporate governance.

A lawyer by training in her native Australia, she spent some years at a large multinational company with responsibility for governance, before she got lured into the development field.

A stint in Tajikistan involved setting up legal structures to support youth, women and development. In 2012, she went to Bahrain when that country was trying to repair the image of a legal system that had come under attack from critics, working for a non-profit organisation involved in training, education and reform across the legal system. “It was based in Bahrain, but it was an opportunity to address issues common to all legal systems – too many cases before the courts, too much delay, in a system that needed to be more effective,” Ms Koffel says.

At the Pearl Initiative’s forum this week in Dubai, there will be a continuation of that push for concrete results.

“The UN sustainable development goals have a very tangible target. They are trying to make it a practical and measurable goal,” she says. That is also her priority at the Pearl Initiative.

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DR Congo NGO ends boycott of UAE's Kimberley Process chairmanship

An African non-governmental organisation in the diamond industry has decided to end its boycott of the UAE’s chairmanship of the Kimberley Process (KP), the regulatory system that overseas trade in the precious stones.

The National Support Centre for Development and Popular Participation, known under its French acronym Cenadep, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, became the first member of the Civil Society Coalition (CSC) to break ranks with the boycott organised last year.

The coalition is one of the three “pillars” of the KP structure, along with producing governments and the diamond trading industry. It announced its boycott when the UAE was awarded the chairmanship of the KP in protest at what it alleged were abuses in Dubai’s diamond trading hub in the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre.

Last week, Ahmed bin Sula­yem, the KP chairman for 2016, called for CSC to end the boycott and attend the KP plenary session planned for Dubai next month, and for the KP to have a permanent apparatus under United Nations supervision.

Albert Kabuya Muyeba of Cenadep said: “Given the progress made in the implementation of issues raised by the CSC, and having obtained the opinion of the Congolese government on the participation of CSC in the Kimberley Process, Cenadep accepts the invitation of the KP chair at the plenary in November 2016 and believes that the best way to lend credibility to the KP process is by re-enlisting within the KP family to address different challenges inside, and not outside.”

The Congolese organisation is one of 11 that make up the CSC. Others are believed to be considering the offer from Mr bin Sulayem, although Partnership Africa Canada, the most vociferous critic of the UAE under its director of research Alan Martin, has said that the boycott remains in place.

Mr Muyeba added that his organisation “notes with great satisfaction the progress made since January 2016 compared to the main demands of the coalition”.

The KP under Mr bin Sulayem has also put forward proposals for the valuation of rough dia­monds, which has been one of the main grievances of the coalition. Mr Muyeba said: “Cenadep welcomes the progress of discussions around diamond valuation and the efforts made by the KP chair to particularly address the issue of synthetic diamonds and that of the internal control systems in member countries. Cenadep remains convinced about the complexity of the evaluation issue and congratulates the KP chair for putting it on the table in order to enable stakeholders to provide concrete proposals for moving forward. This is an initiative that we must support.”

Ola Bello, the executive director of one organisation that is attending the plenary, Good Governance Africa, said: “We are very pleased to see that in reflection of Africa’s tradition, the KP chair and some members of the CSC have decided to reconcile their differences and bring forward a positive agenda for change of the KP.

“The KP was instrumental in ending bloody wars on our continent. Under the KP chair’s leadership we hope to stride forward to further strengthen the sustainability of the diamond sector and to improve the livelihood of all those who work in it,” he added.

The KP was set up in 2003 at a meeting in Kimberley, South Africa, to stop the trade in conflict diamonds in the global gems trade and its financing of violent rebel movements.

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Abu Dhabi Global Market takes a broad-based approach to growth

The Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), the UAE’s new financial free zone, has signed up 160 member firms in its first year of business, in what it calls a “milestone” for the capital’s long-term economic plan.

The market, which declared itself open for business last October, has attracted eight financial firms so far, and 152 non-financials, including law firms, professional and corporate service providers, and family offices.

There is also an increasing number of retail and leisure companies operating on Al Maryah Island headquarters in the ­capital.

Dhaher Bin Dhaher Almheiri, the chief executive of ADGM’s registration authority, said: “As a broad-based financial centre, ADGM has been focused on creating a business-friendly and sustainable eco-system where local companies and international entities can grow together. We remain relevant and responsive to the needs of our market by maintaining a dynamic platform and safeguarding the best interests of our registered companies and stakeholders.

“Through ADGM, businesses have access to and can conduct a wide range of activities to bolster their growth. We also have a supportive framework that meets the needs and requirements of family businesses by safeguarding their assets.

“Numerous family businesses and individual companies have also set up in ADGM as it provides a supportive framework which allows them to manage family interests and safeguard their assets in the most efficient manner,” Mr Almheiri said.

In challenging economic times for the region in the wake of falling oil prices, ADGM executives are satisfied with the rate of growth, which they say compares favourably with the early years’ performance of other financial centres in the region.

The push to attract new members continues. “ADGM will continue to work closely with key stakeholders to review opportunities and develop new synergies to attract more local and global brand names to Al Maryah Island,” it said in a statement.

Financial technology and family offices are two sectors expected to see growth in numbers next year.

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IMF report sees slow growth for next year

The IMF believes that growth in the UAE’s non-oil economy will slow next year, as the two biggest emirates in the federation – Abu Dhabi and Dubai – experience contrasting economic fortunes.

Yesterday, the fund released its latest assessment on the economies of the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan.

Masood Ahmed, its regional director, said that overall growth in the UAE would fall to 2.3 per cent this year, down from 4 per cent last year, as the effect of lower oil prices worked through the wider economy. Next year he is expecting a slight recovery, to 2.5 per cent.

Growth in Dubai would fall slightly to 3.3 per cent this year, down from 3.5 per cent in 2015, before recovering to 3.6 per cent in 2016.

Abu Dhabi’s GDP growth would experience a “sharp decline,” he added, down from 4.3 per cent in 2015 to 1.5 per cent this year and 1.7 per cent next.

He said that the IMF would be “keeping an eye” on levels of indebtedness in the UAE economy, especially in Dubai where debt levels have remained relatively high since the global financial crisis of 2009.

The IMF’s most recent estimate of Dubai debt levels – in spring this year – estimated total public and private sector debt at about 70 per cent of GDP. This is comparatively high, but down from the peaks recorded seven years ago. A new assessment of Dubai debt levels is expected next spring, the IMF said.

But Mr Ahmed added: “I do not believe we are witnessing a return to the conditions of 2009. The numbers are better and management systems are much stronger. The regulatory framework, the governance of government-related enterprises and risk management have all improved significantly.”

He said that the rise in the oil price over the past year, as well as measures by GCC governments to reduce expenditure and raise revenue, meant the IMF’s estimate of total fiscal deficit over the next five years would fall from US$1.1 trillion to $765 billion.

“But that is still a big figure which needs to be managed. The oil pick-up eased some of the financial pressure but doesn’t really change the economic implications for oil exporters,” he added.

In a separate development, the ratings agency Fitch said that the effects of the oil decline would lead to an eventual deterioration of asset values among regional banks, and that some financial institutions were better placed to cope with this than others.

“Our base case is that GDP will continue to grow in 2017 and 2018 across all GCC countries and we forecast a gradual rise in oil prices to US$55 per barrel by 2018. Nevertheless, we examined the impact of lower for longer oil prices on asset quality across the region and concluded that loss-absorption capacity in the Saudi banking sector ranks highest among GCC countries and that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar would continue to offer the soundest lending opportunities under that scenario.”

Fitch added: “The operating environment is a positive ratings factor for banks in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. In our view, business opportunities are strongest in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, reflecting the countries’ larger and more diversified economies.”

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From Dubai, a portrait of the artist as a young lady

The Global Islamic Economy Summit last week was illuminating in more ways than one.

I bumped in to the Thomson Reuters executive Samer Habbal, who helped me out with a quite technical query regarding some obscure aspect of Sharia finance, but who, as an aside, passed on a very inspiring story about his daughter Celine.

The talented young lady must be one of the youngest published authors in the UAE. She began her first novel at the age of 10, finished it a couple of years later, and – now just tuned 14 – has had it published.

The Land the World Forgot is a fantasy novel for young adults, and I’ve had it in my hands only long enough to read the blurb. But I must say I’m looking forward to reading it with my own daughter, Amira, now eight, in the hope it will also inspire her.

“Aurea, the Golden City, is home to sacred spirits of ancient realms and the birthplace of many of humanity’s myths and legends – even though most of humanity has never heard of it,” I read by way of synopsis. It seems an action-packed and gripping tale.

Dad tells me that Celine was in love with books from an early age. “She’s always been a reader. We had to fight to get the books out of her hand at the dinner table,” he recalls.

Books, notice. Celine does not go for iPads or Kindles, preferring the real thing. So print is not quite dead for the younger generation.

But there is a cautionary side to the tale too, which Samer elaborates. “We had a lot of trouble finding an agent to handle an author so young in English, and in the end we self-published it online and in print by Lulu Publishing.”

That is nothing to do with LuLu the UAE retailer, by the way.

Another problem young authors face here is that the big bookshops like Kinokuniya and Borders will not take them, and so far Celine’s novel has not gone on general distribution.

While the UAE has launched a commendable and successful reading initiative, it is disappointing, to say the least, to hear of a talented youngster who has gone one step further in actually writing a book, but who is being knocked back by the retailers.

Others were quick to recognise her. Wellington School, which she attends, gave her a special award, and the Roads and Transport Authority singled out a short story she has written.

Which seems to have made her more determined, despite the miserable book retailers. “Being a successful author is my dream and I am working very hard to pursue it,” says Celine. She has already completed the manuscript of her second novel. Brava.

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