x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

New boss is making his mark at the DIFC

Jeff Singer inherited a challenge with the DIFC's stated plan to double in size by 2017. But if the first half of the year is any indicator, the chief executive is up for the task

Jeff Singer, the chief executive of the DIFC, believes the personal touch will be important in winning new business. Satish Kumar / The National
Jeff Singer, the chief executive of the DIFC, believes the personal touch will be important in winning new business. Satish Kumar / The National

It's hard to pin Jeff Singer down these days. Earlier this week he jetted in on the red-eye from the United States to Dubai, made his first formal presentation to the media as chief executive of the Dubai International Financial Centre Authority and was immediately off again to the airport to do what he regards as the core of his job: winning new business for the DIFC.

"I've got a lot of business development meetings on," he says in a phone call on his way to the airport. "That's the goal, developing DIFC. I don't often travel just to conferences or to be a speaker. The trip has to be about one-to-one meetings with potential partners. The personal touch always helps."

The personal touch has been much in evidence during his five years in the UAE.

He moves with apparent ease from his bosses in the senior echelons of Dubai Inc through the range of colleagues, subordinates and business partners he must deal with as a chief executive. He even, occasionally, finds time for a coffee with a journalist.

The media event this week was the presentation of operating results for DIFC for the first half of the year. Although it was his first formal outing as the head of the authority that runs the Dubai financial hub, he was on familiar ground, having spent four years previously as chief of Nasdaq Dubai, the DIFC's stock exchange.

He had a good story to tell. DIFC grew by 7 per cent in the first half, employed 1,000 more people than at the end of last year and was able to announce occupancy rates close to 100 per cent in the DIFC's owned and managed properties.

But behind those figures, Mr Singer faces a challenge. Last year, the previous management of the DIFC committed the centre to a target that some thought would be difficult to meet: that the DIFC would double in size by 2017.

That would mean 30,000 people employed, more than 2,000 registered companies and a quantum leap in the ancillary services - shops, restaurants, gyms - such a hub requires. Is that too big an ask for DIFC? Mr Singer is as confident as can be that the target will be hit.

"We could triple in size by 2017 and still have enough space. We could take 45,000 people working here. We only need between 10 and 12 per cent growth compounded per year to hit the doubled target," he says.

That seems ambitious, especially with such high occupancy rates in DIFC owned and managed premises. Most of the property in the immediate vicinity of the core Gate building is nearing 100 per cent occupancy. The question of a "capacity ceiling" looms.

The answer has to come from the developments around the central DIFC area, most of which are owned and managed by third parties. Mr Singer says total space occupied in developments such as Index Tower, Park Towers, Emirates Financial Tower and Liberty House stands at 372,000 square feet, but cannot say how much more is available.

In comparison, total commercial office space in DIFC-owned buildings is 1.3 million sq ft.

Despite the confidence, he admits that "growth has to accelerate". There was some evidence in the half-year review that North American and even European firms had begun to come back to DIFC, or at least slowed the exodus of the immediate post-crisis years; and the demand from Asia is as strong as ever, Mr Singer believes.

" We have four of the top five Chinese banks, but really we'd like the top 10," he says.

He sees great untapped potential closer to home, however. The influx of business escaping the unpredictability of the Arab Spring in other Middle East countries has slowed, he says, but DIFC has high hopes that the big family-owned businesses of the region, evolving into corporate entities, will flock to the centre.

"That's a big potential market for us, and we're having lots of conversations around that. They [family businesses] don't offer a big presence, but they are important. Outside of the Government, who owns business in the Middle East? It's families."

Although he is reluctant to talk about it in detail, there is also a potential source of new competition at home - the planned Abu Dhabi Global Market, currently being set up in the capital.

Some DIFC observers say they have already detected signs that Dubai-based institutions are considering the attractions of the ADGM, but Mr Singer says he has noticed "nothing significant". He adds that Dubai and Abu Dhabi have a history of collaboration on big projects, which will continue.

But he appears to welcome the new competition: "Where we have an advantage over the whole Gulf region is that our legal structure has already been proved in other jurisdictions around the world. The DIFC has established a credible financial jurisdiction.

"The core competency of Dubai is trade, and I believe Dubai will consistently remain true to trade," he says.