By Denise Marray/Gulf Times Correspondent/London
The Lord Mayor of the City of London, Jeffrey Mountevans, set off for the Gulf region yesterday with a large business delegation with the aim of strengthening relationships and ensuring that London and the UK remain the partner of choice for financial and professional services.
Gulf Times attended a pre-departure media briefing at the Mansion House in the City where the Lord Mayor lives during his mayoral year.
Alderman the Lord Mountevans Jeffrey Evans’ 16-26th January visit will take in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. Qatar is not on the itinerary this year.
Asked why Qatar was not included he explained, “We have made a lot of visits to Qatar in recent years and I think perhaps they feel that if you go a lot - as they get so many visitors - perhaps there is more impact if we give them a rest for a year. We were there last year and the year before. I just think we have try and feel when we are going to have the impact of the visit.”
The visit to the region comes against a backdrop of regional conflicts and economic pressures related to the drop in oil prices. There has also been some recent tension between the UK and Saudi Arabia over the cancellation of a £5.9m contract to provide a training programme for prisons in the kingdom. Most recently the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr drew widespread condemnation in the UK.
Mountevans, whose grandfather commanded the ship that took Captain Scott’s expedition to Antarctica in 1910, has over 35 years experience of the Middle East region through his career as a ship broker. He is fully aware of the sensitive issues but stressed that his role is to deal with business not politics.
“This is a trade and business mission but I will be anxious to reassure about the very old friendships that exist. These are tremendously important; this is a part of the world where old relationships count and I know for a fact that the Prime Minister attaches very great importance to the GCC countries. But my mission really will be on the business agenda. Of course I will be interested to listen and to hear things but I think the political concerns will primarily be addressed through the political and diplomatic channels.”
Asked whether he anticipated a reduction of investment from the Gulf region into the UK, he said.
“I think we are particularly aware of what is happening with the oil price and the pressures being put on national budgets. But I think that with the efforts that we’ve made here to make our market inward investor friendly I hope that the attraction absolutely remains. I am hopeful that any political concerns will not interrupt or impact heavily onto the flow of investment. I want the flow of investment to continue both ways.”
He added: “I think that clearly this is a difficult time for the economies in the Gulf. The priorities for them will be home markets but I think there will still be some investors for whom the international market is important and interesting. We have gone to a lot of trouble in this country to make it an attractive place to invest. We stand at number six in the world rankings for ease of doing business.
“We’ve taken a number of steps in recent times to make it more attractive. The government has had a big drive on red tape: I think something like 2,400 regulations have been abolished or altered to make this a good place to do business. We do understand the issues locally. The oil price may be low now – it is not going to stay low forever. Keeping the connections strong is terribly important.”
Asked to comment on the talk about a possible flotation of Aramco shares on the stock market, he said: “This is interesting at the moment with the talk of a possible flotation of part of Aramco. It would interest London greatly if Aramco were to list here. If Aramco were to have a public flotation we would very much welcome that – we have a very strong position in energy and natural resources. I am not convinced myself how far advanced the thinking on this is in the kingdom. I am sure there will be different voices within the kingdom about such a big step. It is very early for me to comment on it but of course if Saudi Aramco were to list they would be very welcome here.”
He said he took a personal interest: “Aramco is particularly interesting to me because I am a ship broker. It’s been my job for very many years. I know Saudi Aramco on the transportation side for oil and gas quite well.”
On the subject of the UK’s Islamic finance capabilities he said: “A lot of enterprise, ingenuity and innovation is going into developing Islamic finance in the UK and I think we have been rather successful in building our case so far. It is absolutely an area where we have an offer and I think our ambition remains to increase the amount of Islamic finance that we arrange.”
He was asked about the UK’s stand on building business relations with Iran and whether he would be visiting in the near future. “If we see a potential for British businesses to do business with the right people I am sure that these things will be considered but there is no plan at this moment. The sanctions would have to finish before that came under the microscope. I am sure there is a big potential there,” he said.
With regard to highlighting the investment potential around the development of the Northern Powerhouse in the UK, Mountevans said that he would be keeping his antennae up on this area.
“This is very important government initiative and I will be visiting six northern cities myself in the summer. There is a lot of potential with cheaper land and cases where labour can be more competitive. There are lots of good reasons to be involved there. I think Abu Dhabi has already been making investments in that part of the world and I am confident that other Gulf countries and others will follow. I will flag up the potential.”
This is the first major visit for the Lord Mayor this year. He will spend some 90 days abroad overall, travelling with the status of a cabinet minister. Companies joining the Lord Mayor as part of the business delegation include Lloyds of London, Linklaters, Invesco Asset Management, Grant Thornton and Deloitte.
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