x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 December 2017

Frank Kane’s working lunch: Badr Jafar of Crescent Group channelling talk into much-needed action

Badr Jafar, managing director of Sharjah’s Crescent Group, tells Frank Kane that ‘crisis fatigue’ has set in regarding the Middle East, and of the challenges awaiting the next generation.

Illustration by Álvaro Sanmartí / The National
Illustration by Álvaro Sanmartí / The National

Maybe it was the rarefied Alpine air, maybe it was all that intellectual stimulation you get at the World Economic Forum (Wef) annual meeting in Davos, but within minutes of sitting down to a late lunch with Badr Jafar it was apparent he wanted to talk big – big themes, big thoughts, big ideas.

A discussion of the minutiae of Crescent Group, the Sharjah-based conglomerate of which he is managing director, was not on the cards. He wanted to address the issues of the next generation, and where better to do that than at the Wef’s annual think-fest?

But despite its reputation as the ultimate trough for the global elite, it’s surprisingly difficult to get lunch in Davos during the Wef.

This is not because of a shortage of eateries in the Swiss town, which ships in thousands of catering staff for the five-day extravaganza each January, bolstering its already formidable facilities as an Alpine resort.

Nor is it the fault of the organisers themselves, who provide a constant steam of treats in the main Congress Hall – sandwiches, cakes, little potted jars of rice and chicken that must be some kind of Swiss delicacy. But those are snacks, rather than lunch.

The main reason is that the working day at the Wef is so intense that it’s hard to fit in a simple one-to-one lunch meeting. The agenda makes no allowance for midday food requirements, and all the participant organisations organise their own working lunches.

If you “do” Davos properly, it’s possible to fill every waking hour from 7am to midnight with some kind of formal activity. At 5,000 feet, in minus 18 degrees (as it was this year), this is exhausting – although I doubt I’ll get much sympathy.

So when Mr Jafar agreed to a lunch interview with The National, the main problem lay in finding a slot. We struggled to coordinate diaries and cancelled a couple of dates at the last minute, before finally settling for a sandwich in his hotel room. So much for the planned power lunch with the Davos “masters of the universe”.

The Crescent Group, made up of the enterprises and petroleum divisions, is a rare thing in the Gulf: a family-run oil and gas-based conglomerate. This is thanks to his father, Hamid, who saw an opportunity at the birth of the UAE to build an independent energy business in the emirate of Sharjah.

The Jafar family, of Iraqi origin, has expanded beyond energy since then, notably via the ports business Gulftainer and a number of other business ventures. It remains a family affair, under the joint management of Badr and his elder brother Majid.

The Hilton Garden Inn Davos seems a long way from Sharjah. It is within the security cordon the Wef throws around the Congress buildings, so it’s easier to get to than many of the other locations. Nonetheless, it’s a slippery slither of a walk in the late afternoon by the time I arrive there, and find Mr Jafar ready to talk.

“I guess China has been the highlight of Davos,” he says, reflecting on the big global event of Wef 2017 – the speech by president Xi Jinping that amounted to a not-so-veiled attack on the protectionist policies of the new American administration.

But just as I’m expecting a broad overview of the geopolitical situation, Mr Jafar seems to backtrack, as though something more important is on his mind.

“The Wef hasn’t really managed to woo the leaders of the technology community. They [tech leaders] see Wef as old economy that doesn’t really cater to its needs. There’s only so long you can talk about the future of the world,” he says emphatically.

I am surprised. Mr Jafar is classic Wef material, and has been attending Davos for the past seven years, first as a Young Global Leader and now as a corporate partner. While it is far from a scathing attack, it does seem rather unexpected for a man of Mr Jafar’s impeccably global credentials.

Educated at Eton and Cambridge University, he has become a leading light on the business power circuit. He addresses the United Nations, he tops the bill at forums on corporate governance, he is friends with Hollywood movie stars and musicians. But he seems disgruntled with the current state of the Wef.

“It’s good to talk, of course, and to exchange ideas, but maybe in this day and age you need a more action-oriented approach. I know it’s a common criticism and some of it is unfair.

“Not all ideas lead to sustainable implementation. But I have to get things done and achieve results. The question is to find a balance between healthy discussion and much-needed action,” he says.

We break off conversation to order from the Hilton room service menu. Standard stuff really, maybe a bit more Swiss “fleisch” (meat) than you’d get elsewhere in the world, but a club sandwich is fairly universal. We settle for two of those, which arrive with Swiss punctuality after precisely five minutes.

They certainly are substantial, layers of “fleisch” topped off by fried eggs. I suppose you need the calories in the Alpine chill.

But we face a problem. The ground rules for Working Lunch stipulate that The National has to foot the bill, but Mr Jafar signs it off on room service. We agree I will make it up to him back in the UAE.

Apart from China, he was impressed by the Wef’s sessions on medical technology, biotechnology and pharmacological advances, and I think he’s just about to launch into a review of these important areas. (Crescent has a growing healthcare division.)

But again he checks himself back. “For the Middle East, I get the sense that crisis fatigue has set in at Davos. For the last five years, there have been the same challenges, the same structural reforms needed. But the net result is…” – he chooses his words carefully – “stagnation at best, and in other areas, like security, humanitarian and geopolitical, a deterioration. After five years of complacence and numbness, it’s like Groundhog Day.

Some of his disillusionment stems from early 2016, when a planned regional meeting of the Wef in Sharm El Sheikh was called off on security grounds, and only replaced by a much lower-key affair in Geneva in the summer.

“I didn’t go,” he says.

Still, he continues, “There are some positive aspects. I think there has been an increasing recognition by the business community that it’s in our own self-interest to take part in positive change in the Middle East. But again, how much positive action has there been?

“For example, on youth unemployment, there has been lots of talk, but look at the actual results – lots of layoffs in the workforce as soon as the oil price started to decline. It’s the elephant in the room, and we’re not really seeing the private sector doing much about it,” he says.

It boils down, he says, to the skills gap and to education in the region. “Not the quantity of education, but the quality of it. There is something structurally wrong,” he adds, citing regional graduate unemployment as an example of how the system is failing the young generation in the Arab world.

Crescent has a programme that is like a 21st-century equivalent of an apprenticeship, where young people can be trained on the job in the skills of robotics, artificial intelligence and cyber-science. “Now it’s the responsibility of business to continue the education process,” he says.

I realise that what is on his mind now is not the challenges of running a multinational conglomerate, nor geopolitics, but the challenges facing young people of the next generation and the role of education in helping them to overcome them.

I decide to sit back, finish my club, and just listen. “What the UAE Government has done is good, and it’s shone a strong light on where we should be going. But public policy is not enough. There has to be more innovation. How can you explain things like, for example, the low level of patent applications in the Arab world?” he asks, warming up to this theme.

“There are various reasons. A sense of complacency that natural resources would carry us through for many generations, perhaps. And the lack of an enabling environment. Silicon Valley did not pop up overnight with a couple of smart kids in a garage, despite the stories. There was an elaborate policy by the US government to enable companies like Apple by granting them government contracts.”

But there are limits to how far governments should intrude on the private sector. “There is a lot of unhealthy competition from governments in the Middle East. Governments control lots of companies that actually should be in the private sector. Governments should be in the business of regulating business. Business should be in the business of business,” he says.

He admits there are exceptions, in sectors such as defence and telecommunications. “But governments owning coffee shops, taxi companies and real estate projects? I don’t think so,” he says emphatically.

Thereafter, the conversation ranges across generations and continents. He invokes the Islamic “golden age” of the eighth and ninth centuries, which “embraced diversity, creating a melting pot of cultures, Arab, Persian, Indian and Chinese, with different skill sets and languages. It led to an incredible boom in innovation then.”

He cites Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, in the same breath as Harun Al Rashid, the caliph of Baghdad who established the Bayt Al Hikma, House of Knowledge, in the Islamic capital.

“All these people were polymaths. Now our education systems are too specialised. We’ve become obsessed with specialisms. Are there any musicians, artists, poets at the table, or just a set of PhDs? That’s another reason for the lack of innovation: there are not enough artists in business. Steve Jobs used to insist there was a poet in the room,” he says, apparently clinching his own argument.

The sun has sunk below the skyline of the Alps, and it’s time to go. He has evening meetings, so have I.

But while pulling on the overcoat, gloves and scarf obligatory in Davos, he shows me a picture on his phone. “My first child, born a couple of weeks ago,” he says, obviously proud of the delightfully cute infant, a daughter.

Mr Jafar now has a very personal stake in the next generation.

business@thenational.ae

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