A whirlwind tour of Gulf corporate governance …

Corporate governance improves with the inclusion of women on company boards, as reported by the International Finance Corporation. So what happens to corporate governance when a woman is appointed to head a stock exchange? We will soon find out, as Saudi Arabia has just appointed Sarah Al Suhaimi to head its stock exchange. Ms Al Suhaimi comes well prepared for this job as the chief executive of NCB Capital, the investment banking and asset management arm of the largest bank in Saudi Arabia and the second largest bank in the Middle East. A few days later Samba, the fourth largest Saudi bank, appointed Rania Nashar as its first female chief executive. I look forward to what I expect to be a positive impact because of this gender diversity.

Speaking of corporate governance, I recently explored the website of the Abu Dhabi Accountability Authority (Adaa). I did this as the government owns many important companies in the private sector and understanding how they are governed is important to my investment decisions. The amount of useful information on the Adaa’s website is astounding. Clearly not only has a lot of thought gone into the creation of the Adaa but also into its development. As a start, the listed objectives are:

  • Ensuring public resources and funds are managed, collected and expended efficiently, effectively and economically;
  • Ensuring accuracy of the fin­ancial reports and compliance of Subject Entities with relevant laws, rules and regulations and governance guidelines;
  • Promoting accountability and transparency across all Subject Entities.

These objectives pertain to 91 entities that Adaa lists. That alone gave me confidence in the Adaa as a positive force for private sector – but there is much more, including annual accountability reports. I urge anyone involved in the private sector to review all this material.

One example of where the Adaa can add value is the recent announcement that Aabar would not only participate in but guarantee a Dh1.5 billion rights issue by Arabtec, following Arabtec’s Dh3.5 billion loss in 2016. Does sovereign wealth fund support to a single listed construction company make sense or would it be better to look at the sector as a whole? Does it make sense to even be involved in the construction business given that the government is a major client in this sector?

Personally, I would like to see Adaa request more transparency from its entities invested in the private sector on how board directors for their investee companies are selected, their performance reviewed and when they are terminated. Good corporate governance would also dictate revealing the cumulative board remuneration received by representatives of the government sitting on the boards of private-sector companies, although since good corporate governance also dictates that one should not get board compensation if it is part of their job I would expect that such remuneration would mostly be zero. One zero that is, not six or seven zeroes.

Last week, Bechtel was awarded a contract to help set up and operate Saudi Arabia’s National Project Management Organisation. Saudi’s move from consultants, who have no operational accountability, to partners with actual operating responsibility and experience is a great evolutionary economic step, one that we could all learn from. I look forward to seeing how this works out and where else this thinking about operating value creation is adopted.

An article in last week’s edition of The Economist magazine was titled European financial centres after Brexit. This reminded me that we have two major financial centres in the UAE in the Abu Dhabi Global Market and the Dubai International Financial Centre. It would be good to hear their strategies, if any, to take advantage of London, a major global financial centre, ceding market share. I emphasise strategies, not goals or wishes.

One idea is that with London as the international dollar clearing centre being challenged, why not vie for a position as the dollar clearing centre for the Middle East? To make a stronger case, why not link to Singapore and have a two-pronged strategy: ADGM/DIFC clears the Middle East and Africa, Singapore clears Asia, and there is a link between the two. A powerful strategy. Not as powerful as ADGM and DIFC linking up, or even the Abu Dhabi and Dubai stock exchanges linking up, but since nobody else is talking about that, I won’t either.

So I saw in the news that Elon Musk was recently in Dubai. The article reported about how he met Dewa officials. I could not find any articles about Mr Musk, one of the best known entrepreneurs in the world, meeting members of the venture capital community in Dubai. But this did lead me to an article about the RTA launching driverless passenger drones with the ambition of also having other driverless vehicles.

Here’s the problem with all of this. The government continues to crowd out private-sector entrepreneurs. Of course there is a strong role for government, starting with providing a legal and regulatory framework that allows entrepreneurs to launch start-ups that drive the economy, to providing charging stations for the Teslas and technical infrastructure for driverless vehicles. But the actual commercial part really should be driven, no pun intended, by the private sector. Nowhere has a state-run economy worked. The largest recent convert is China, which went from a state-run economy to a state-regulated economy. You can bet that Alibaba, the US$250 billion e-commerce company, would not have been possible if the Chinese government had not made way for the private sector.

Oh, and either abolish agency monopolies or tax them at 15 per cent of revenue and 30 per cent of profit, the same as Etisalat and du are taxed for their oligopoly.

This article was originally published in The National.