Sharjah a land of opportunity for the UK

LONDON // Lee Jennings has certainly heard of Sharjah — but very few of his UK clients can say the same.

Mr Jennings spent 15 years working at the British Embassy in Dubai, most recently for the Welsh government helping businesses build trade in the UAE.

He left last year, returning to the United Kingdom to set up Jennings International, which specialises in helping business to set up shop in the Arab world. Most often, that means the UAE.

Much of his role involves educating his clients — which range from renewable energy companies to landscaping firms — about the UAE, especially those emirates that do not have the headline-grabbing profiles of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

“From the UK there’s still a degree of lack of knowledge about the whole of the UAE,” says Mr Jennings. “Certainly, Sharjah is an unknown entity to a certain extent.”

That is something authorities in Sharjah very much want to change.

The Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq) at the weekend held a “Sharjah Day” in London, geared towards British companies looking to set up in the emirate. Shurooq recently opened an office in the UK capital and in September plans to launch a global campaign entitled “Invest in Sharjah”.

Marwan Al Sarkal, the chief executive of Shurooq, acknowledges that Sharjah has not previously done all it could to sell itself in global business circles.

“Sharjah has not been promoting itself internationally on a wider level,” he says.

“From a business point-of-view, not everyone is aware about Sharjah. So if you go to the business community, people might not really recognise that Sharjah is the biggest industrial hub. They might not recognise that Sharjah is the heart of [small- and medium-sized businesses] in the Emirates.”

But the emirate is certainly doing something about it now. Shurooq’s UK operation currently has two staff housed in temporary offices. But there are plans to grow this and buy a dedicated premises in the UK capital, Mr Sarkal says.

“We’re not here in London to test the market — we’re here to stay,” he adds.

“We’re going to have more events here in the UK, not only in London. We’re going to go to Manchester in the future, to Scotland, Wales and Ireland to check what are the opportunities, and how we can promote [Sharjah] to UK investors.”

Shurooq’s event in London attracted about 200 people — more than double the 80 expected. The authority has also formed a partnership with the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce and is working with the Financial Times on launching a Sharjah FDI conference, Mr Sarkal says.

“I think Sharjah deserves to be internationally recognised,” he says. “So our objective is just to spread the message that Sharjah is there, Sharjah is open for investors, Sharjah is a very dynamic emirate.”

There are, of course, challenges ahead. Economic growth in Sharjah is said to have slowed, tempered by the gloom over low oil prices and tightening liquidity in the banking sector. Standard & Poor’s (S&P) said last year said it expected economic growth in the emirate to have dipped to 3.5 per cent in 2015, down from 5.5 per cent the previous year. The UAE is also implementing new taxes, such as VAT on goods, while airport exit taxes are coming to Sharjah and Dubai.

James Moffat, the chief executive of Lamprell — an oil-rig construction business based in Sharjah and listed on the London Stock Exchange — acknowledges the firm has felt the impact of the crash in oil prices.

“We’re certainly seeing some headwinds in the offshore business,” he says. “Having said that, our yards are all currently full. We have diversified into more onshore business recently. We’ve also invested pretty significantly in our facilities over the last 18 months — we’ve spent about US$60 million.”

There are ambitious targets in place to grow trade between the UK and the wider UAE.

In October, the UAE and Britain set a new target to double bilateral trade to £25 billion (Dh129.74bn) by 2020 — about double its current level. The previous target, of £12bn, was reached in 2013 — two years ahead of schedule.

Abdulrahman Ghanem Almutaiwee, the UAE’s ambassador to the UK, told the audience in London at the weekend that there had been “remarkable progress” in relations between the two countries.

“The UAE is now the UK’s largest export market in the Middle East, and it is the 12th largest in the world,” he says. “Last year our governments set an ambitious new target to double bilateral trade to £25bn by 2020. Indeed, a new target requires new thinking and deeper engagement.”

British companies that already have interests in Sharjah include Serck Services International and Gama Aviation. And many more are eyeing the emirate for opportunities.

The UK’s Watership Down Technologies, which makes organic waste digesters that can be used to create fuels and compost, was one of the companies attending the Sharjah Day in London.

Peter Shepherd, its director of Middle Eastern projects, says the company has big ambitions in the region — specifically in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

“We have a target of £250m [annual] revenue from the Middle East alone … in 12 months,” he says.

Watership Down’s technology can be used to reduce landfill waste and create compost. And the latter is of vital use if the region is to boost its farming activities, says Mr Shepherd.

Watership Down Technologies executives were set to meet with Bee’ah, the Sharjah public-private partnership that specialises in recycling, waste management and the environment, at the event in London.

Khaled Al Huraimel, the chief executive of Bee’ah, says the company already does “a lot of work with UK companies” — including the technology company Chinook Sciences.

Sharjah has some unique advantages over other emirates, experts say.

Mr Jennings, who also does work with Global Business and Investment (GB+I), says that while Sharjah has to “compete with its neighbours”, it does have advantages in aspects such as cost, and the fact that it has seaports on both the east and west coasts.

“Depending on what kind of industry you’re in, I think Sharjah offers something slightly different than Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” says Mr Jennings. “The cost will probably be lower in Sharjah than in Jebel Ali, for example.”

Robert Martin of GB+I — which has a presence in Dubai and the UK and also specialises in helping businesses grow internationally — says the UAE is “fertile ground” for British companies, as well as schools and arms of the country’s National Health Service (NHS).

“We’ve got several NHS trusts looking to come to the UAE and several British schools. Of course, a lot of them come to us and they ask about Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” he says.

“But it’s really interesting for us to educate them about Sharjah, and tell them about the opportunities there. Because they don’t really know much about it, by and large.”

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