Dubai-based Mr Martin St Valery was also recognised for his work as chair of his own company JacksonMSV - Market Entry Solutions, a company he set up in 2016, shortly after selling his first business, Links Group, to global corporate service provider Equiom.
Mr Martin St Valery – the only person in the UAE on the Near Year Honours list – said he was delighted and proud to receive an Officer of the Order of the British Empire from the Queen.
“I was absolutely blown away by the news. I had no idea at all, so I was completely delighted and honoured,” Mr Martin St Valery told The National.
The BBG chief was invited by Simon Penney, her majesty’s trade commissioner for the Middle East and her majesty’s consul general in Dubai, to the embassy three weeks before Christmas to receive the good news.
“I had no clue and had to keep it secret from everyone," Mr Martin St Valery said. "That's the protocol until it's actually gazetted on the first of January, so that was quite difficult.”
But Mr Martin St Valery, who first moved to Dubai in 1998 to set up a UAE branch for the financial services company Equitable Life, said he did tell his wife.
“She wondered why I've been summoned to the headmaster's office – the embassy – and then came back with a big brown ‘On Her Majesty's Service’ envelope. I think she was worried it might be the taxman – so I did tell her, but no one else,” he said with a laugh.
Anyone can be nominated for a New Year's Honour. Mr Martin St Valery was nominated because of his successes as a British business owner in the UAE and for his unpaid, voluntary contribution towards running the BBG.
“All round, he's been a very strong ambassador for UK commercial interest,” Simon Penney, her majesty’s trade commissioner for the Middle East and her majesty’s consul general in Dubai, told The National.
“The BBG is a not-for-profit organisation that helps British businesses succeed here in Dubai particularly," he said.
Mr Martin St Valery's nomination "was a combination of him being a successful British businessman, but more importantly, the fact he's devoted a considerable amount of his time to helping other British businesses through the BBG chairmanship and he also voluntarily supports the British University in Dubai as well” Mr Penney said.
The past 12 months have been extremely significant for UK-UAE relations, following the expansion of Britain's Strategic Investment Partnership with the UAE in September when Mubadala Investment Company committed a further £9 billionn to Britain’s technology, infrastructure and energy transition, in addition to the £800 million already pledged to the life sciences sector in March.
Mr Penney said 2022 will be a pivotal year for UK-UAE relations, as the UK looks to commence negotiations on a free trade agreement this year.
“That FTA will further strengthen the bilateral relationship with each of the six member states of the Gulf, but the UAE today is the UK's largest trading counterpart in the Gulf and certainly with the measures that the UAE are taking, we have every reason to believe that trade has a significant opportunity to grow even further over the next 12 months and beyond.”
With 5,000 British businesses operating in the Emirates, Mr Penney said the UK relied heavily on voluntary business groups, such as the BBG, as it moves into "the next phase of its trade and investment relationship with the UAE".
"John, stepping up and being chairman, like his predecessor, is something they do out of goodwill and a sense of duty, so business groups are really important conduits to get our message further and deeper because ultimately, our job as government is to make it easier for businesses to do business – we are nothing without businesses," Mr Penney said.
Mr Martin St Valery said the strength of the government-to-government relations between the UK and the UAE but also government to business have never been stronger.
“There are very clear targets for trade growth – with about £16 billion last year and an aim in the next two to three years to get to £25 billion reciprocal trade,” he said.
Bradley Jones, executive director of the UK-UAE Business Council, which underwent a revamp last year, as the organisation looks to boost the close trade and investment ties between the UAE and UK, said Mr Martin St Valery "has played a really important leadership role at the BBG Dubai and more widely as a highly respected representative of the British business community there".
"He also supported the Business Council during the restructuring we went through in 2020 and continues to advise us and mentor us. So this was a very well-deserved honour," Mr Jones said.
Mr Martin St Valery founded the Links Group in 2002, after his first job came to an end when the company he was working for withdrew its operations from the Emirates
“In 2000 it was quite an interesting time here because there was a lot of talk in the market about the real estate market opening up, free zones opening and a financial centre coming. So I made the decision, having been through that process of setting up a business and then closing one down, of setting up an advisory business to help other businesses coming into the market,” he said.
While initially the company focused on British companies, it later evolved to offer services to other firms, after pioneering what is now called the corporate nominee model, where foreign companies have a company as the local partner, holding 51 per cent equity to comply with local regulations.
But Mr Martin St Valery said the one thread that has run through his 24-year stint in the Emirates is the BBG, which he first joined as a member, before later joining the committee and becoming chair in 2017, a role from which he will step down this summer.
“Having arrived here in the late 90s without a network, one of the best pieces of advice was that you should join the BBG because they can find you a professional and perhaps social network as well," he said.
“That group enabled me to meet with lawyers that I needed to see, accountants and recruitment agencies and that's how I built my network.”
After becoming chair of the organisation, Mr Martin St Valery revamped how the organisation was run because at the time the group “had lost its way” and membership was dwindling, with event attendance also falling.
Today, membership is on the rise again with the event schedule booked up for the next six months and a full-time staff of six and a pro bono board of 12, with the organisation also becoming invaluable to British companies when the pandemic started in March 2020.
“We went old school and picked up the phone to our members, reaching about 70 per cent of them in the first four to six weeks after the pandemic [and] started to ask them what their concerns and pain points were – particularly the smaller supply chain businesses that felt they were not going to get paid and did not know what the outlook was,” he said.
The New Year's Honours list is published biannually by the UK’s Cabinet Office, once at the start of the year and also on the Queen’s birthday.
While famous faces to receive New Years Honours this year included James Bond star Daniel Craig, who received a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, ordinary people who make an extraordinary contribution are also recognised with OBEs given to those who have a major local role in any activity ranging from arts and athletics, to science, business and politics.
After receiving the news, Mr Martin St Valery said he felt emotional driving home because he realised he had dedicated a lot to his work in the Emirates “not for a reason – but just because those were the circumstances and it's what I enjoy doing”.
“I became even more emotional on New Year's Day when I was telling the rest of the family, and I've been absolutely inundated and humbled by all the messages on LinkedIn and social media," he said.