My Lords, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen
My thanks to HE Hassan Fakhro and the Ministry of Industry and Commerce for inviting to me speak today. It’s a real pleasure to be here talking about the excellent opportunities for UK business in and through Bahrain.
Now some of you may be asking what does this guy from the Foreign Office know about business. Well, aside from the fact that it’s in the family DNA, before I arrived in Bahrain 2 years ago I headed up the UK Trade and Investment operation in Hong Kong, now one of our biggest markets. I recognise that for many of you it’s not just about the business opportunities but also about the added value a market brings or what advantage you might have as a British business. And for many of the smaller companies heading out of Europe for the first time, how can you mitigate the risks associated with entering a new market?
Having worked with successful British businesses in Bahrain for the last 2 years I would just highlight two unique points in Bahrain’s favour.
The first is ‘location, location, location’. Or to put it another way: ‘one market, three opportunities’. First, Bahrain itself. It may be the smallest market in the Gulf but we still sold nearly £600m of goods and services there last year and it is the UK’s fastest growing export market in the Gulf. Secondly, and uniquely, it is attached by a 25 km causeway to the heart of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a region which generates most of the GDP of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s biggest economy. From central Manama to Al Khobar takes less than an hour by car.
Hundreds of British businessmen make the journey every day. And thirdly, Bahrain remains a highly regarded regional hub, a major financial and logistical centre, the leader in the Gulf in Islamic finance. And let’s remind ourselves that the Gulf states are developing rapidly. With an overall GDP of over $1.4 trillion, the 6 Gulf states now constitute the UK’s 7th largest export market, larger than India, Russia and Mexico combined.
The second USP is Bahrain’s workforce, generally regarded as being the most skilled and educated in the region and, for the most part, bilingual in Arabic and English. Bahrain has had to develop its human capital because although it is an oil-producing country it doesn’t have the scale of natural resources as its neighbours. As a consequence, its education system is the most well-established in the region, including one of the best British schools outside the UK.
So what about you? Do you have an advantage as a British company? Subject to the ever-present caveats of right price and quality, yes. You do benefit from the fact that the UK is one of Bahrain’s closest partners. We have a very close, long-standing relationship, going back 200 years. Bahrain was the UK’s hub in the region for most of the last century. There is a legacy. Bahrain is incredibly anglophile.
But it’s not all about heritage, history, the ‘good old days’. The welcome my wife and I got from the Bahrainis was the warmest we have experienced in 30 years of working overseas. And that is the experience of most Brits who work in Bahrain. 9 out of 10 Brits in Bahrain will say that it is the place in the region where they are made to feel most welcome, most at home, most part of the family. And having spoken to some of the British-based F1 teams last weekend that’s also one of the reason why the like the Bahrain Grand Prix so much. That’s Bahrain’s unique ‘soft power’. Its software if you like.
His Majesty King Hamad and his government have stated that they want to see more British companies winning business in Bahrain. Prime Minister David Cameron told His Majesty that was “music to his ears”. Importantly for you that translates into a genuine desire to do business with British companies and to welcome new business to the market.
So Bahrain is a market where, as we have heard, there are multiple and very significant opportunities for British companies. In fact, on the UK’s historical share of major contracts, we estimate that the 5 biggest projects alone could be worth around £1bn to UK business. It’s a market with several distinct advantages. You have an advantage because of the flag you fly under. And lastly, it’s a market which helps to mitigate the risks some of you may be concerned about. Bahrain is regarded as a comparatively easy place to do business and has a well-established and well-regulated financial system, regarded as one of the best in the whole Middle East. Those were points which the Lord Mayor of the City of London, Alderman Roger Gifford, made when he visited Bahrain with a delegation in February.
The British government has ambitious goals to double exports by 2020 and connect UK business to the world’s top commercial opportunities. It is opportunities such as those being showcased today which can help us realise our goals. The UK trade and Investment team at the British Embassy is developing a number of very positive business opportunity leads, with British companies new to the market signing good deals in recent months. Given the opportunities highlighted today and the advantages which Bahrain has to offer as a springboard into the region, I am confident that many of you will want to take a first-hand look at the market. My UKTI colleague from Bahrain, Imane Alalaiwat, is here today and would be happy to speak to you afterwards, as am I, about how we can help you grow your business in Bahrain.
And remember, if you don’t go for the business your competitors will.