Stronger protection and transparency measures key to attracting more investors to Gulf markets

A clearer restructuring and resolution process would provide greater reassurance, Miliken Institute study says

This picture taken December 12, 2019 shows a view of the sign showing the logo of Saudi Arabia's Stock Exchange Market (Tadawul) bourse in the capital Riyadh. Energy giant Saudi Aramco's market value soared above $2 trillion as its share price surged again on its second day of trading. The valuation milestone was sought by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he first floated the idea of selling up to five percent of Aramco, the world's largest oil firm, about four years ago. Aramco shares jumped another 9.7 percent to 38.60 riyals ($10.3) on Thursday morning, following a 10-percent rise the previous day. / AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE
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Gulf nations need to strengthen protections offered to investors and offer greater transparency as they look to ramp up efforts to attract investment and diversify economies, a new study argues.

The 2020 Global Opportunity Index produced by the Miliken Institute, considers the economic and financial factors that influence foreign investment activities, as well as legal and regulatory policies governments use to attract external funds.

The report highlighted 2020 as an important year for Gulf economies given Dubai's Expo 2020 and Saudi Arabia's presidency of the G20. It also said significant progress has been made in terms of recent reforms, highlighting the inclusion of Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in leading emerging market indices.

“This trend will help spotlight the region to global investors and funds,” the report's authors, Claude Lopez and Joseph Bendix, said.

“However, the inclusion in these global indices means extra scrutiny from investors and new challenges … especially information disclosure. The delays in Aramco’s IPO illustrate the importance of these components when dealing with international investors.”

The study ranked the UAE as the most-investor friendly of the six Gulf nations, and the 26th most attractive out of 146 countries globally. Saudi Arabia was ranked as the least investor-friendly of the six Gulf states but was still 66th overall globally.

It argued that Gulf nations rank alongside upper-middle income countries in terms of factors such as the cost of starting a business, labour and tax regulation, the efficiency of the legal system and access to financial services, but highlights several areas that need strengthening.

Investor protection is one of the most important of these, it said, particularly the "recovery and resolution process", which covers factors such as the cost and time involved in enforcing contracts and in resolving the insolvency process.

Many Gulf states have only recently established bankruptcy laws, and these remain largely untested in terms of working through major bankruptcies.

The UAE's bankruptcy law was introduced in 2016 and a personal insolvency law passed late last year is set to come into force this month.

Transparency was the other major area where improvement is required in areas such as budget transparency, the depth of credit information, conflict of interest rules and reported incidences of corruption.

Other areas that could help to sway investment include the development of workforce talent, including the level of qualifications and diversity of the workforce, and general economic openness, measured through factors such as bilateral trade agreements, general tariff rates and treaties with investment provisions.