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Letter from Abu Dhabi

Published by Daily Star on 2003-11-01

ABU DHABI: Hector and Tehruna Patel of India, who came to the United Arab Emirates shortly after they met and married some 20 years ago, run flourishing businesses. Hector deals with marine supplies, and Tehruna produces greeting cards and other bits of delectable stationery. Each has spent more time here than anywhere else, and each would not want to live anywhere else.

"This is our home," said Hector, "our roots are here now. We cannot imagine a nicer business environment."

That seems to be a typical sentiment among expatriates who reside in this capital city of skyscrapers, squat bungalows, sprawling palatial estates and luxuriant greenery. While neighboring Dubai seems to get all the global attention these days as the place to do business, Abu Dhabi is where the real money is. This is where the great decisions about the UAE's huge oil and gas reserves are made. This is where the country's Central Bank is placed, presided over by its formidable--and widely respected--governor, Sultan Nasser Al Suwaidi. He is the UAE's main voice at international meetings on the subject of fiscal responsibility and governmental transparency. He frequently speaks out on the virtues of an open economy.

"The most important thing is have an open economy, and a market based economy--which really depends on the forces of supply and demand," Al Suwaidi told an interviewer some time ago. "Therefore, we put minimum restrictions on our banks in doing their business. That allows them to grow and flourish as well. This has created a bigger banking sector in the UAE than in other countries in the region. And that, of course, has helped the economy. It helped the economy diversify by providing the required credit lines to manufacturing and other businesses. Our non-oil sector represents 70 percent of GDP--and it is growing even at times when the oil prices are under pressure."

The diversification of the UAE economy that the governor speaks about is good news for both domestic businesspeople and outsiders like Hector and Tehruna Patel. Their numbers are growing, as more expatriates come to this country to pursue mammon. Governor Al Suwaidi's Central Bank issued a report not long ago which said that 85 percent of the population in UAE's seven emirates--which grew last year by 7.6 percent to 3.75 million--were foreigners. Of the UAE's work force of 2.03 million--a record, according to the Central Bank--some 392,000 people are in trade and repairs; 320,000 in construction; and 262,000 in manufacturing. The oil and gas industries, of course, also account for large numbers of employees. And in all this, Abu Dhabi, a city of 1.47 million, certainly is on a roll. Just ask the Patels.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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