Ellecia Saffron, the chairwoman of the Australian Business Group (AusBG) Abu Dhabi, is a portfolio manager and was born in Sydney, and has now been in Abu Dhabi for nine years.
“My heart is in Abu Dhabi and Australia,” she says in Arabic. She was the first woman to join the AusBG board seven years ago and was elected as the chairwoman four years later. “When I became chair, the board became 50-50 male-female. We didn’t mean it, but it is an interesting observation that we always make.”
AusBG has more than 250 members and the companies represented work in the consultancy, architecture, engineering, government, construction, finance, legal and hospitality sectors.
Here, Ms Saffron talks to The National about her experiences and outlook for the UAE.
Oil prices started to fall about two years ago. How do you see the response from the UAE?
This is my second financial downturn in the UAE, after the one in 2009 in Dubai, and I think since then the UAE has continued to develop. In my opinion, the lower oil price has led everybody to look at their costs and make sure they are working efficiently.
What are the biggest opportunities for Australian companies here?
There are huge opportunities in areas such as services, health, education, technology and innovation. We are both rich mineral nations, and we recognise the importance of innovation. It is a very entrepreneurial environment here in the UAE and it is a huge opportunity. The UAE has shown itself as a peaceful oasis, a moderated, open, tolerant society that values collaboration, other cultures, skills and the knowledge to create a good place.
How has the mood been regarding the decline in the oil price?
There is definitely an uncertainty. It is not good, not great, so people have been waiting to see what will happen this year. No one knows how long the oil price is going to be that low or when it will recover. But definitely the mood since January, when the oil price moved from US$30 [a barrel] to today, about $40 to $45, it is a very different environment. I would say cautious is the best word. A lot of the members see and understand the opportunities in this country and there is an increasing motivation and desire to diversify the economy and create a fully flexible, sustainable economy on its own.
How long do Australian companies take to decide whether to set up in the UAE?
It is very varied. We see that some companies come through and test the water, but this is a place where relationships are very important and it takes time to build, so companies that move here with a local partner or with a group that has been here a long time, those ones are more comfortable and guided better.
What are some of the unexpected circumstances they find when they come?
As with anything new and unknown, it may take you a bit longer to find your way, who to contact and build your relationships with. The unexpected thing they discover is how the Emirati people are welcoming, how they are family orientated, how nice they are, really.
How would you define the relationship between the members of the council?
I would have to say there is camaraderie. I started my own business last year and there are similar businesses that also started within the business group, but everybody is working together and helping each other.
Do you forward businesses between members?
Yes, as a business group is essentially a networking and connection platform, as well as a knowledge-sharing scenario. We put on knowledge events. We try to educate our members on federal goals and the economic goals of this country. We are doing an Expo 2020 update in May and if they want to get involved with the Expo they know how they can. We do Etihad Airways updates – the airlines are very important connections between Australia and the UAE, and there are between 130 and 160 flights a week between the countries. It is not just tourism or bringing in Australians, but to diversify the economy. Three million people travelled between the countries last year.
How does it work when members compete?
Each person, each company, has a different set of skills and that is unique, and people get to know what that is. So if [there is] another company that is a sort of competitor that can do it a bit better, I have seen businesses within the group that tap them on the shoulder and say, “Would you like to come and be involved because you can bring this to the table?”
Do you think there is transparency doing business in the UAE?
Yes, I do. I think that there are no differences when I invest in this country. Forty-five years [ago] this country did not exist, and [now] they raise the standard of living, develop their people, create a sustainable economy for the future and invest to preserve their wealth for the coming generations. They have done it very well. Looking back helps you look forward.
Do you advise companies to have a plan B to pull out?
We do not officially advise, but in my own opinion, as a portfolio manager – and I make investments – I always suggest you diversify your investments. In terms of the economic climate, I think is a great time to look at this part of the world. The Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) just started. They are very committed to making it a respectful and reliable finance hub and place of business.
Do you think the ADGM will compete with Dubai?
I don’t think so. The expansion was needed, to be honest. My business is set up in Abu Dhabi; we are not in Dubai because our relationships and the businesses we work with are in Abu Dhabi. There is an offering from both to coexist.
How do council members view the giving of gifts?
I haven’t seen any gifts too exuberant or not expected. The gifts I have seen are more symbolic. Last week, I was on business in Asia and I brought a box of Bateel dates and they loved it, and that’s the gifting culture here. In big companies, there is a dollar limit and above that you have to declare it.
How do the members of the council see Emiratisation?
It is a topic dear to my heart because 50 per cent of my interactions when I worked for the sovereign wealth fund in Abu Dhabi were with Emiratis. I got to know the culture and I care about this country. I would love to see some of my Emirati peers progress through in roles and always said I wanted to see an Emirati take my job at the fund. Expats understand and respect that their role is not only to do the job but also to develop their Emirati peers or support them. We did a mentoring event last month with a non-profit group with the focus on gender parity. The beautiful thing is that mentoring has two benefits. If I am mentoring an Emirati, I give everything I learnt, but I also learn about the culture. They share with you about their family, their sayings, how they do business.
Any special case of successful Emiratisation?
In my previous job, we had a girl that started as analyst and she went up and she changed business areas and continues to grow. I know a lot of Emirati men and women that progress doing different things. You look at the UAE leadership, such as Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the Minister of State for Tolerance. Not many people know that she worked long hours and now she has corporate experience, and see where she is today. I think because the country is young, Emiratis get opportunities earlier and that also means pressure. I have got a theory: if you give the good things to the right people, they will swim if you throw them in.
How do council members push for Emiratisation?
It is more in the government area. Jobs need to be advertised for Emiratis. There is a policy about having a certain representation of Emiratis. I think it is good value to have Emiratis involved in your business. They bring something to the table that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
How can Emiratis succeed in the job market?
First, feedback is always a gift. If someone’s giving you that, it is not criticism – they really value you and see potential in you. Second, failing is the path of success. If you fail or make a mistake, stand, back up, learn from it and go forward. You will ultimately be enriched with the experience. And third, stay true to what you are.
What could be the key element to retain Emirati talent?
It is important to understand what motivates your employees, what makes them excited. It is not about money, particularly in this culture. Brand and reputation are very important, to learn from somebody that helps them grow is very important. You need to find what matters to them and incorporate it in your values. Family, identity, respect, culture and learning are important for Emiratis. They are proud of their country and they want to give back to it.
How do you empower women?
About 30 per cent of the council is women. The UAE culture has an advantage because a mentality of sisterhood exists – my Emirati colleagues call me sister and give me good and bad feedback. We need to support each other.
Do Australian women collaborate with local businesswomen?
We could do more. There are a lot of Emirati women who are the first generation running a business. They don’t have business role models in their mothers and their aunties. Most get support from their fathers, but in most cases it is something new to the family. I see this as an opportunity for cross-cultural mentoring.
Is there a special niche that women can tap into?
There is definitely a niche in women-to-women business because you have to respect cultural boundaries in this country. If you look at the UAE’s diversification, you have a nuclear power plan, the Nibras Al Ain Aerospace Park for the aviation industry, and within the latter there is Strata, an aerospace manufacturing facility where the majority are Emirati women. That’s phenomenal.
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