Despite some progress in drawing money managers to the region, GCC countries face a daunting task to rival hubs such as Singapore. The region aims to improve its regulatory climate and win more interest from the industry
Long road ahead for Gulf hubs
The global funds industry has long been better at taking money out of Arabian Gulf financial capitals than putting it into them.
Dubai and Doha want that to change. Competition between the two is heating up as they bid to attract big-name fund managers and win top billing as money management hubs.
But attempts to lure the foreign institutions through regulatory improvements and, in the case of Qatar, other commercial carrots have so far yielded few asset-management trophies.
Analysts say a lot more needs to be done if the region wants to rival more established centres around the world such as Singapore, Dublin and Luxembourg.
"Remember the entire economy of the GCC is about the same size as that of Italy," says Richard Phillipson, the director of institutional consulting at Investit.
"So it is not a huge opportunity for global managers. Even if trading were easier with Saudi Arabia opening, there are only a few firms big enough, liquid enough to be of interest."
To put the size of market in context, Investit estimates there is about US$7 billion (Dh25.71bn) in client money managed out of the UAE, by about 30 firms employing just 300 people in total.
With about half of them working with less than $100 million, their revenues would be in the order of $1.5m each.
A 2010 World Bank report on the regional industry noted that at that size, management fees would be insufficient to support serious efforts in fundamental equity research. Two years on, the situation may be even worse, with the malaise in markets forcing many brokerages to close as banks have had to pull analyst coverage of locally traded stocks.
Investit contrasts the size of the UAE industry with Schroders, a funds giant based in the United Kingdom that manages some $320bn and employs 2,700 people. This single firm oversees about 40 times as much assets as the entire UAE commercial sector.
That is one reason why efforts by Qatar to attract funds through commercial incentives appear insufficient for the required task.
Qatar last year bagged its first asset management trophy in the form of a Barclays private equity fund - but it did not come for free. The Qataris agreed to seed it with $250m. The country claimed another asset management start-up this month with a venture involving Credit Suisse.
But more may be required to attract the big names of global fund management that the Qataris covet.
The major fund managers that do have a local presence in the Gulf tend to keep just a few analysts or managers on the ground and see little reason for changing that in current market conditions.
"We have been lobbied by the Qataris and Bahrainis to set up there but we certainly don't see the business prospects are sufficiently big to warrant more than one office," says Gavin Ralston, the global head of product at Schroders.
Kai Schneider, a partner at the Dubai office of the law firm Latham and Watkins, says the best case study of how to effectively start a fund industry from scratch is not to be found in Dubai or Doha but in Singapore where, in 1998 at the peak of the financial crisis, the government took the decision to farm out investment to money managers with Singapore offices.
Within three years the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation more than trebled the amount it placed to locally based fund managers to S$35bn (Dh105.11bn). That provided the necessary momentum for the funds industry to take off.
"The Qatari approach is just not comparable," says Mr Schneider. "It is not sufficient to attract anyone beyond Qatari capital. I don't think they stand a chance. I struggle to see how they will gain traction beyond managing Qatari money."
But this is not deterring the Qataris and their counterparts in the Emirates from trying to carve out a niche for themselves as regional centres of money management.
The UAE's Securities and Commodities Authority has just implemented its Investment Funds Regulation, which transfers responsibility for licensing funds from the Central Bank. But the new funds regime has so far received a lukewarm response from the industry.
"I do think it was a missed opportunity," says Mr Schneider. "It was an improvement from nothing to something. But the something should have been much better."
The political situation in Bahrain, traditionally favoured by the funds sector, has encouraged centres such as Dubai and Doha to step up their marketing efforts
But it may be Bahrain's closest neighbour that has the most to offer foreign institutions.
"I believe there will be good opportunities in Saudi Arabia, where there is a viable market size for anyone who can create a good, efficient fund-wrapped or cloned portfolio wealth management proposition," says Mr Phillipson. "That will not be a Qatar or UAE regulated fund."
As financial policymakers in the Gulf compete to create the most attractive funds framework it appears the process is likely to be much more of a slow burn than initially anticipated.
"The region has attractive investability long term. However, the relatively small size of capital markets and somewhat gradual evolution of regulatory infrastructure has kept larger funds away," says Saud Masud, the chief executive of SM Advisory Group, based in New York.
"It's a growing process and, just like in history, many frontier markets have evolved to emerging and then developed markets. I strongly believe several of the [Middle East and North Africa] countries will get there in the next decade."