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Lunch with Chander Rai

Published by Current on 2009-03-30

NEW DELHI—Chander Rai, who makes his living parsing phrases, can also be said to be a man for all phases. That is to say, his professional life has embraced the dynamics of virtually every stages of growth in the United Arab Emirates, and that he has flourished, failed, and flourished again.

So what’s he doing here in the Indian capital city of New Delhi? This is where Mr. Rai first made his mark at a fledgling newsmagazine, India Today, that has grown into a behemoth. That stint served as a springboard for a career in publishing in the UAE. And, in time, Mr. Rai leveraged that career into a global consultancy in that zone where media and technology converge. Which is why it’s New Delhi today, Abu Dhabi the next, Dubai after that, then a flight to Tokyo, back to Dubai, and then to New York, which, notionally at least, serves as Mr. Rai’s home these days.

This is flying in the fast lane, of course, but it means vivisecting the vocabulary of his clients, who include major technology companies, media giants – well, those giants that are still left standing in these parlous times – and governments. It means anticipating financial developments that may not even be on the horizon. It means always being attuned to fine nuances of the consulting game. And it most certainly means paying special attention to his own personal finances and sometimes offering advice to others – even to titans – about theirs.

“It isn’t that I don’t have a comfortable life,” Mr. Rai said, over a meal at the fabled Delhi Gymkhana, a British-Raj era club that everyone covets to join but whose waiting list extends well into the next decade. “I have experienced the consequences of total financial loss – and, believe me, that isn’t an experience I’d care to want again.”

What experience was that?

“My first lesson in personal finance came in the UAE when BCCI [the notorious Bank of Commerce and Credit International] went bankrupt and I lost all my tax-free earnings. Thanks to the intervention of the UAE government, I was able to redeem most of my losses, but the lesson was loud and clear: Do not put all your eggs into one basket.”

How many baskets, then?

“Today my investment portfolio is not only across different investment products, but also across different countries and currencies,” Mr. Rai said. “I have been converted into owning small apartments in two or three different countries, rather than a large mansion in one. Not only does this make my frequent travel in these countries more convenient, but also gives me an easy option to liquidate one at short notice, if required.”

Of course, liquidating his assets is scarcely on the cards for a man like Mr. Rai, who had the foresight during his early years in the UAE – in the 1980s – to grasp that technology was in the ascendancy and that, for emerging nations in the Gulf – especially those endowed with an abundance of crude oil and natural gas – expertise in the form of managerial consultancies would be essential.

“My most rewarding experience, perhaps, was initiating electronic alliances with international newspapers like The Daily Telegraph, The London Times, The Washington Post and The Financial Times, as well as Asahi Shimbun, New Strait Times and The Indian Express,” Mr. Rai said, referring to UAE and Gulf media institutions that he helped rescue from insolvency or faltering finances. “This meant everything from restructuring the organizations, to buying new presses and equipment, as well as to building new networks. It was absolutely fascinating to strategize the future, to bring in the latest technology and to employ some of the finest personnel from different parts of the world.”

What many people who were associated with Mr. Rai in those years still recall is his insistence on probity and on fiscal prudence. He would often say to them: “If your personal finances are in order, that will translate into better fiscal health of your organization.”

That sort of aphorism may be construed as a mantra, but it has worked for Mr. Rai and for the institutions with whom he has been associated. He is quick to give credit to the aptitude of Emiratis for understanding finance.

“My early experience with the local entrepreneurs was a very gratifying one. They wanted the best talent for the enterprise and were willing to spend on sophisticated equipment provided the returns on investment looked good,” Mr. Rai said. “At that stage there were only a few leading business families, who were heading the change toward a modern business society. And even though the oil money was substantial enough for risk taking, their outlook was fairly conservative with an eye for the long-term future.”

He is, however, a tad disheartened that, after making rapid strides early on, the UAE seems to have slackened with regard to hi-tech, particularly in media.

“As far as the UAE is concerned, I find that we were more abreast of developments in media technology ten years ago than we are today,” Mr. Rai said. “When Dubai Media City was set up, the broadband infrastructure looked good. But now it appears to be falling behind requirements and has become more expensive than neighboring Asian countries. A fair amount of investment would be required to bring UAE mobile technology to the standards of Japan and South Korea.”

So what should the UAE be looking more closely at when it comes to the convergence of technology and media?

“Let me you give you an example. My experience with MIT’s Technology Review, for whom I am the international adviser, has been to always evaluate new technologies affecting the media business. Back in 2000 at the e-Book World Conference, Dick Brass predicted that the last paper edition of the New York Times would appear in 2018. We wonder now whether that prediction was too conservative,” Mr. Rai said.

“Digital development in the MIT Media Lab and one of its more famous spin-offs, e-Ink, is having a profound impact on the publishing industry. Kindle 2 will allow the reader to easily switch between reading and listening, while the iPhone may be destined to be the iPod of the publishing world,” he said. “My own prognosis is that mobile telephony will over take and integrate all media technologies. A harbinger of this is the Qlk, a start-up founded in 2006, which allows people and reporters to broadcast live from their mobiles.

“Advertising related technology is not far behind with the coming of the Semantic Web. That means that software will comb blogs, social networks, and forums for information about the meaning of a page reading it ever more intelligently – and of course better targeting advertisements. These are the kind of developments that folks in the UAE need to monitor even more closely.”

Notwithstanding his lament about the slippage in technology in the UAE, Mr. Rai is encouraged by the attitudinal changes he sees among young Emiratis.

“I believe the young generation today is much more responsible and far more confident than we were,” he said. “They also have much more opportunity for specialized education and international experience than we did.”

Of course, realist that he is, Mr. Rai also expresses some concerns about the young.

“I harbor a certain fear about the younger Emiratis taking up highly responsible positions at such an early stage in their lives. At times, the lack of experience results in steps, which look innovative at the time, but may not have long-term benefits for the organization,” he said. “This is because the UAE is a very young country with opportunities for educated young people to rise suddenly. I am sure this will settle down over the years and decision-making will become less spontaneous.”

The meal at the Delhi Gymkhana had been very satisfying – fish and chips, of course, and mashed peas, in the tradition of the Raj – and Mr. Rai had another appointment. But one more question needed to be squeezed in: What future did he see for Emirati society in the post financial-crisis world?

“I see a great future for the Gulf countries in the post financial-crisis. I think, there will be a more realistic approach to business and to expansion. The property market in Dubai can, in many ways, be likened to the magazine industry in that city. People who had no inkling of either business got into them, because they smelled quick money. I think they will be opting out as quickly as they came in to the detriment of several investors. The large experienced players with knowledge of the business will continue to flourish despite the crisis,” Mr. Rai said.

“The growth rates for the Gulf countries are such that I describe them as the next frontier for business opportunity.,” he continued. “People tend to look only at the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China] economies. To these should be added the fast emerging GCC countries. ?The UAE is certainly up there, even though things may look a bit down these days.”

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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