|The Great Eastern Hotel near Liverpool Street train station was designed with the City of London financier in mind. Its minimalist interior, clean lines and discrete atmosphere create the right setting for business people to work on a deal or attend a mid-sized forum.|
I escaped into the Great Eastern in late March for a few hours at a gathering of Egyptian ministers and business people to discuss the outlook for the region’s most populated country. The talk inside the meeting room was about robust growth of 7%, foreign direct investment hitting a record $11 billion dollars and re-positioning Egypt to capture more than its fair share of Gulf petrol dollars.
On the way over to the meeting, I read my morning paper with headlines reacting to the Federal Reserve’s orchestrated bailout of Bear Sterns and yet another drastic cut in U.S. interest rates to help cushion the blow of the slowdown. This was followed by rampant rumors in London of an imminent collapse of a leading retail bank. The rumors sparked an investigation.
Inside the foyer I took time for a few interviews to sound out my views that we are not living in one global economy right now. “It really does seem like two parallel universes,” said Marwan Elaraby of Citadel Capital the Egyptian investment bank.
“You drive around Dubai or the more frontier emerging economies of the region, you would never guess what is happening in the world economy. What is happening on Wall Street or the City of London seems like a universe away,” added Elaraby.
The dollar continues to tumble; oil continues to surge; prices everywhere for staples are skyrocketing. Despite the rosier economic outlook, protestors in Cairo demanded that President Hosni Mubarak do something about the cost of bread. History buffs know from Roman times that economic growth alone does not deliver votes, but affordable access to bread certainly does.
Finance is Confidence
Middle Eastern players are not ignoring the red-lights of concern flashing on Wall Street, quite to the contrary. They are hoping to minimize the impact. As co-founder of Beltone Financial, Aly El-Tahry noted: “Finance is confidence. As long as you don’t have a catalyst or something that diverts the present expectation from this negative mood, we’ll continue to have uncertainty.”
For Egypt that may translate into a drop of up to 1 percentage point of growth this year according to the country’s Investment Minister Mahmoud Mohieldin. While he acknowledged the challenge, the 42-year-old minister added some bigger picture thoughts on what this might eventually mean.
“I’m much more concerned about the policy formulations in the future because the kind of extreme pragmatism that we’re witnessing today could be justified in the short term by uncertainty, by requirements of having to make and to do some quick actions to fix problems,” said Mohieldin. The Worldcom fiasco led to Sarbanes-Oxley. This severe credit crunch he worries may lead a new White House occupant to move into action to limit trade or the flow of financial investments.
Let’s hope not. We, however, have heard very little from the three remaining presidential candidates on what they would do about the Doha trade round, sovereign wealth funds or the sinking dollar.
Meanwhile, back in the foyer of the Great Eastern, the talk remains on creating new opportunities. Egypt is in the midst of creating a new industrial investment hubs and expanding IT centers. For that to come off the ministers know that skills need to match the demands of companies such as Microsoft or Oracle who already have a presence there.
With this economic boom underway in the region, the players are looking to India and China for inspiration, not Wall Street or the City of London .