x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Al Habtoor IPO can set fine precedent for family tradition

Frank Kane says let's not get carried away yet. There is many a slip between announcing an intention to float and the first day of trading.

Al Habtoor Group, whose businesses include car showrooms, hotels, retail and leisure outlets, schools and hospitals, has been involved in building Dubai's infrastructure for decades. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Al Habtoor Group, whose businesses include car showrooms, hotels, retail and leisure outlets, schools and hospitals, has been involved in building Dubai's infrastructure for decades. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Let's not get carried away yet. There is many a slip between announcing an intention to float and the first day of trading.

But the potential initial public offering of Dubai's Al Habtoor Group could be a game-changer for UAE corporates and the country's financial markets.

What we know for definite so far is this: at a meeting between senior company executives, including the chairman, Khalaf Al Habtoor, and representatives of the Dubai financial authorities, it was decided an IPO would be considered; and the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and the Nasdaq Dubai stock market acknowledged the importance of family groups such as Al Habtoor as the "foundation for the future".

Subsequent reports have suggested an IPO next year. One account put a potential value of up to US$1.6 billion (Dh5.87bn) on the IPO. Even on such minimal information, the significance of Al Habtoor's move is not being lost on Dubai's financial establishment.

That's because Al Habtoor is not just any old family business. It has been involved in building Dubai's infrastructure for decades, in alliance with the Government.

Its businesses - hotels, retail and leisure outlets, car showrooms, office buildings, schools and hospitals - are virtually synonymous with the modern public image of the emirate.

A successful IPO could be the signal for other big family groups - Al-Futtaim, Al Thayer and Al Ansari among others - to tap the equity capital markets. It could also prompt the Dubai Government to put privatisation of some of the big, state-owned businesses, such as Jumeirah and Emirates Airlines, on the front burner. All this, of course, is music to the ears of DIFC executives.

Take Nasdaq Dubai. The market has been struggling with low trading volumes and liquidity for years. The only stock traded in any quantity is DP World and even that struggles despite its robust market capitalisation of about $10bn.

If, on the basis of reported statements and the assessments of informed insiders, Al Habtoor eventually raises about $1.6bn via the sale of approximately 25 per cent of new equity, that would raise the overall market capitalisation and potential liquidity of Nasdaq Dubai by as much as 70 per cent.

An IPO could also trigger other significant changes to the UAE exchange architecture. A company such as Al Habtoor, with its roots in the Dubai national community, would want a healthy retail involvement in the listing.

This might encourage Nasdaq Dubai and the other local exchange, the Dubai Financial Market, to work together on ways to increase what the professionals call "fungibility" (the ability to trade the same stock in different currencies across separate platforms).

This would require the involvement of the UAE regulator the Securities and Commodities Authority and the Central Bank.

Finally, Al Habtoor is (again reportedly) considering a dual listing, with London or Saudi Arabia mentioned as possible partners in the IPO.

While London might have some problems understanding such a company, the Riyadh market would lap it up. That raises the exciting prospect for regional investors of closer cooperation between Saudi, the biggest market, and Dubai, the most advanced.

Of course, there is much to do before any of this happens. Initial advisory work on the IPO is being done by the international accounting firm Grant Thornton, so specialist listing advisers will have to be brought on board at some stage. Note, however, the expertise Al Habtoor already has in this respect, with the presence of the respected former banker Paul Rayner as an adviser to the chairman.

The Al Habtoor IPO is by no means a done deal but it could be Dubai's deal of the decade.

fkane@thenational.ae