It is a lesson in business skill to watch Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair “work” a room of guests. He was at it last week with a gathering of journalists at a media roundtable, and again yesterday at a bankers’ breakfast meeting organised by Mashreqbank, of which he is chairman.
With the media, he was accessible, informative and ready with a quip or personal aside to illustrate an important point about the banking industry.
With the bankers he was rather more serious, and painstaking in his networking approach. By the end of the session in the Dubai International Financial Centre, he must have shaken the hand of almost every one of the 150 or so people present.
Maybe that’s what he means by “customercentricity”, the word he has coined for the guiding principle of Mashreq’s banking business.
At the bank, this means a focus on customer relations and personal service; in the wider world of business, it means an ability to personalise and customise relationships. Even at a crowded gathering like the one at DIFC, it seemed as though he was talking to “you”.
Such consummate business skills might be expected from one of the UAE’s most eminent bankers. Mr Al Ghurair and his family have been at the heart of the financial and economic development of the Emirates for several decades.
He is chief executive of Mashreq, one of the oldest banks in the UAE; chairman (although less executive) of Al Ghurair Investments, the conglomerate behind many groundbreaking developments in Dubai and beyond; head of the UAE Banks Federation, the body that represents the financial industry at a federal level; and he spent some time as speaker of the Federal National Council.
His views demand attention. On the economy of the region he told the bankers that in the two-and-a-half years since the Arab Spring, there were still some “complex problems” to be resolved. But he said he had no doubt the UAE had benefited from its status of being a “safe haven” for business.
“Of course, we don’t enjoy what’s happening around us and we wish our neighbours peace and prosperity. But if they [neighbours’ countries] want to go somewhere else, let them come to the UAE, not Singapore or Hong Kong,” he said.
Mr Al Ghurair told journalists last week that he was “maybe getting too optimistic” about the prospects for the UAE economy, but none of that optimism had dissipated at the bankers’ meeting. “The prospects are very positive. We are forecasting at least 4.5 per cent GDP growth this year, with one third of that from the hydrocarbon sector, which is a credit to the leaders who have made the UAE a real hub for all kinds of trade and infrastructure,” he said.
He said the non-oil economy had grown by nearly 20 per cent annually over recent years, giving the UAE advantages in trading facilities and airport capacity unrivalled in the region. “Together the ports at Jebel Ali and Abu Dhabi are bigger than Rotterdam, the biggest in Europe; Dubai International is the second-busiest airport in the world,” he said.
His estimation of prospects for the UAE banking sector, badly hit by the fallout from the global financial crisis, were no less optimistic: “UAE banks are in good shape. The loan book is growing, non-performing loans [NPLs] are under control, and the banks are well capitalised. This is the year banks will put the NPLs behind them and start heading into good times.”
On the resilience of the UAE financial system, he said: “We have the second-largest sovereign wealth fund in the world that acts as a reserve for us.” Afterwards, mingling the media again, he said: “Yes, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is an investment fund of course, but what’s the use if you don’t use it during the bad times?”
On the prospects for Mashreq, he was equally positive, sticking to a forecast that profits would grow about 40 per cent this year. The key, at least in consumer banking, he said, was “customercentricity” – giving customers what they want in terms of innovation and personal service.
He also pointed to the bank’s strong record in corporate and institutional banking, and trade finance. “Of the 36 contractors on the Burj Khalifa, 35 were Mashreq customers. On the Qatar Metro project, Mashreq is lead or co-lead on many aspects.”
Mr Al Ghurair is also chairman of the board of directors of the DIFC Authority, the body that oversees Dubai’s financial free zone. He has no concerns that the DIFC will lose business to the new Abu Dhabi Global Market, currently being set up in the capital.
“We will complement each other, it’s a win-win for the UAE. There is sufficient business for both and now the client has greater choice. We will become the financial hub for the whole region. I see it as similar to when Abu Dhabi launched Etihad Airways. There was no loss of business for Emirates Airline, both are now strong,” he added.
He left the DIFC in another flurry of handshakes and whispered confidences. The bankers’ banker.