Dubai's business face to the world

Step inside the office of Hamad Buamim and you gain a sense of not only its occupant but also the city the director general of Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry represents.

Perched on a cabinet in one side of the room is a small glass ornament replicating the Hong Kong skyline, next to it a model ship encased in a glass bottle from Hamburg. In another corner, stands an antique-looking pot from the southern US below a picture of the Monaco Grand Prix. These far-flung gifts give an indication of how much Mr Buamim travels in his job and how linked Dubai has become to the global economy.

Glance out through the large window at the back of his office and abras can be seen criss-crossingDubai Creek, a reminder of the maritime and trading roots that have sustained the emirate's economy for centuries. With a background spanning both the private and public sectors, Mr Buamim, 36, is well suited to be head of an organisation that serves as a vital artery between Dubai's vibrant business community and its ruler.

"I always tell my team that we have Dubai to sell and Dubai is not difficult to sell," says Mr Buamim. "Of course, during the difficult times we have a new role to play, to understand from the Government and businesses what's going on and communicate it, as transparency is very important for the long run." These difficult times saw Dubai's recent rapid growth stall as the emirate's debt load began to wobble under the strain of the global recession. They prompted a government financial support package and a painful restructuring of one of the emirate's crown jewels, Dubai World. The conglomerate's debt crisis roiled global markets and triggered an onslaught of negative publicity. Mr Buamim thinks an agreement with Dubai World's creditors will be critical in helping to lift the uncertainty hanging over the city's prospects.

He sees this "major milestone" as not only a signal for other indebted government-related entities to restructure, but as a potential boost for the thousands of businesses he represents. "Now this major issue [of Dubai World] is resolved a lot of the risk has gone down to minimum," he says. "This will support the business community as the issue of financing and the cost of financing were two big issues on our agenda."

He is all too aware of the difficulties facing companies in the emirate. At the outbreak of the financial crisis in Dubai he launched a monthly survey asking businesses about their challenges and expectations. It was a way of monitoring the pulse of the business community, 90 per cent of which is expatriate. Despite an economic slowdown in Dubai, Mr Buamim has seen no let up in his workload. If he is not reviewing draft laws, he is relaying the thoughts of the business community to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, receiving foreign diplomats or heading business delegations abroad. In fact, Mr Buamim spends a lot of time meeting delegations from across the world.

"I try to be the orchestra conductor," he says with a smile. "When I go internationally and tell people I receive 220 delegations [a year], nobody can compare to that internationally. Abu Dhabi receives 40 or 50 delegations a year and Los Angeles receives 10 a year." He travels at least once a month on official trips, investigating business opportunities for Dubai as well as building investment and trade ties.

Mr Buamim says he is as open and honest about the emirate's situation as possible and encourages his staff to do the same. "We don't give people the rosy picture, we give them the reality," he insists. "We know there are challenges and we know that some things were not done the right way, but with the speed in what happened over the years, it's close to a miracle. "We know the reality and many people only know Dubai through the advertisement of real estate, the tallest tower or the biggest island, but they don't know the basics of Dubai."

The basics of Dubai, as Mr Buamim sees it, are trade and logistics, which have been the economic bedrock of the city since its emergence as a trading hub. Much of the trade is centred only a stone's throw from Mr Buamim's office at the chamber, overlooking the creek in Deira, the bustling old heart of the emirate's business district. It was only in the late 1990s that the property sector emerged as a focus of development, fuelled by easy credit and rising oil prices.

It is this dependence on trade that Mr Buamim now expects to return. "Even during the peak time, trade always had the biggest share of GDP of Dubai," he says. "Trade is segmented, it's not like real estate with one or two big companies. Trade doesn't market itself, not like real estate as companies have apartments to sell." Having witnessed Dubai's dramatic growth over the years, Mr Buamim is well placed to speculate about the city's future.

Growing up in Dubai, he watched as the towers sprung up from dusty lots and as broad motorways ran through the desert. Mr Buamim returned from studying abroad to witness the steady urbanisation as the fishing village he remembered as a child disappeared. "Having travelled a lot and lived overseas, I haven't seen such growth anywhere else," he says. "I grew up in a part of Dubai where most of the growth was happening. I lived in Umm Suqeim and that used to be a deserted area and now there's Internet City and the Palm. What happened for us was a dream come true; we remember the hard old days."

Mr Buamim left Dubai in 1990 for what turned out to be the first of two stints in the US, a country he remains fond of and returns to for holidays. After six years in Los Angeles, completing a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California, he returned to Dubai to work as a senior system engineer at Dubai Electricity and Water Authority. He headed back to the US in 1999, this time to the University of Missouri in Kansas City to obtain an MBA in finance.

Returning to Dubai, he worked as a lecturer in finance and banking at the UAE University's College of Business and Economics and at HSBC as a corporate senior manager. He then moved back to the public sector as secretary general of Dubai Economic Council, a policy advisory body to Sheikh Mohammed. His experience in both the public and private sectors helped him land the position of director general of the chamber four years ago.

"Both sectors work differently," he acknowledges. "As a chamber, our role is to represent the private sector and build a platform for sectors to communicate." He sees engaging with Dubai's business community as vital, with the chamber using weekly committee meetings to gather the views and opinions of Dubai's various business groups and councils on draft laws and other policies. After receiving a ratification by the chamber's board of directors, the views are then submitted to the Government as the organisation's opinion.

He also sits on the Dubai Economic Development Committee, which comes under Dubai Executive Council, the governing body responsible for formulating and implementing local laws. Mr Buamim scored a significant coup in January by being appointed vice chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce's World Chambers Federation with a mandate covering the Middle East region. He uses his position to help attract international events to Dubai.

Overall, Mr Buamim is confident Dubai's recovery is on track. "We are happy where Dubai stands and believe it has a good future."