When I started the BCB in late 2013, the business outlook was uniformly positive. The oil price stood at around US$100 per barrel, Dubai had just been awarded Expo 2020 and the UK was recovering strongly from the Global Financial Crisis posting GDP growth of 2.1%.
The following seven and a half years have been nothing if not eventful, with major external occurrences, on an annual basis, that have provided an enormous challenge to us, our clients and pretty much every industry sector. As well as the oil price collapse in 2014 and Covid-19 in 2020, we’ve had three UK general elections and two referenda (Scotland and the EU) to contend with.
With the last, and most likely the next, 12 months dominated by Covid, it’s hard to discern Brexit’s impact but the ramifications are already starting to play out in this region with regards to UK trade, company activity and sector shifts.
The question I’m probably asked most often is whether the BCB has witnessed a ‘Brexit Bounce’. Though we did have a very busy week in June 2016, immediately after the vote, moreover we’ve seen and heard first-hand how the uncertainties around Brexit have eroded general business confidence, risk appetite and the growth plans of many UK SMEs over the last five years.
However, I do think that the tide is turning and that Covid might have a large part to play in that. UK companies that have withstood the last 12 months, and particularly those that have flourished, clearly have robust business models, a quality offer and client demand and it’s these firms – particularly in the digital space – where we see increasing interest in the UAE and Middle East.
Pretty much every company we help these days has the ‘tech’ suffix – agri, fin, prop, reg, ed, med, etc. – and these winners from the Covid economy are the ones in highest demand here in the UAE as catalysts for the country’s own innovation drive. As such, our work has shifted from a core of looking for agents and distributors for physical goods, to matching technological solutions to both private and public sector needs here in the UAE. We’re also increasingly asked for help to identify possible investors in the region.
These UK companies truly see themselves as ‘born global’. They, like their clients, investors and the solutions they are selling, are not geographically constrained and nor are they typically reliant on customs unions or free trade agreements to flourish.
So while I think we’re a long way from the sunlit uplands of 2013, the outlook is increasingly positive and I’m genuinely enthused by the quality and quantity of innovative UK firms who are looking at the Middle East as an immediate growth market, and the UAE as the best way to access it.
Joe Hepworth is CEO of British Centres for Business (BCB). Contact www.bcbuae.com.