Transparency's day dawning, but not all like the light

The UAE's situation regarding business failure is unique, and raises new questions about the influence of transparency. Not everybody, however, is yet on-message.

Powered by automated translation

The Celebration of Entrepreneurship jamboree organised by Abraaj Capital in Dubai this week was an eye-opener.

Walking around the sprawling Madinat Jumeirah Conference Centre where the show was held, nipping from one "passion corner" to another, it was impossible not to be impressed by the enthusiasm of the new generation of businessmen and women in the UAE.

Young, mainly Emirati and with a high proportion of women in their ranks, these are people for whom a job in the government sector, undemanding but well-remunerated, is an increasingly unattractive option.

They want to emulate their heroes – Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg – by founding, launching or developing something that will be the "next big thing" in the business world.

It was good to see such ingenuity and raw intelligence at work, and I wish all the would-be world-changers good luck. But I have a sneaking feeling there is a bit more to entrepreneurship than donning a pair of chinos and lounging around on beanbags, listening to the priceless words of successful entrepreneurs.

I was there, conspicuous in a business suit (nobody told me about the chinos rule) at the request of Sultan Al Qassemi, a fellow columnist for this newspaper, to talk about the media's role in the entrepreneurial revolution. Specifically, I was on a panel to discuss whether media in the UAE dampened entrepreneurial enthusiasm by talking up business failure.

It struck me as a bit of a wacky idea, and I said so - once I'd managed to lever myself awkwardly from the beanbag. Sultan and I agreed with the rest of the panellists that the situation regarding business failure in the region was unique.

I know that in the West, where the tall-poppy syndrome is still alive and well, it is common practice to build up successful businessmen and then knock them down on the slightest pretext. As a business journalist working in the irreverent environment of Fleet Street, I did my fair share of poppy-cutting.

But that is clearly not the case in the UAE. Sultan highlighted the triangular relationship between government, business and the media: the Government owns, controls or influences the media industry, and also (through government-related enterprises, significant shareholdings or board appointments) owns, controls or influences most businesses. In these circumstances, criticising business failure is tantamount to criticizing the Government, and that would never do.

What emerged from our passion corner was a consensus that the media needed to report and analyse business failure more thoroughly.

Anyway, my day at the entrepreneurs' conference got me thinking about issues relating to media and business, and the crucial question of transparency. The t-word has emerged as one of the big issues of the financial crisis, from which the world, the UAE and Dubai have begun to recover.

The question is whether we have learnt the lessons of the crisis: that transparency is not just an intrinsically good thing, but also essential in business. Financiers and investors need accurate, reliable and immediate information on which to base their business decisions. If they do not get it, they will shun the companies and governments that fail to provide it.

The accepted wisdom is that, in this respect, Dubai has learnt solid lessons over the past year. Criticised for a lack of transparency when the restructuring of Dubai World was announced last year, it has since responded to investor and creditor concerns far more convincingly.

This is one of the reasons Dubai World was able to get the agreement in a pretty short time for its complex restructuring proposals, now accepted by all creditors.

Dubai Inc's new reputation as an increasingly transparent entity was reinforced by the recent prospectus for the Government's $1.5bn (Dh5.5bn) bond, which gave up-to-date and hitherto-unpublished information about the emirate's economy and finances - and which resulted in impressive oversubscription for the bond issue.

So bravo all round. If a new model of corporate transparency emerges in the emirate as a result of the crisis, it will be a silver lining indeed.

But I fear there is still work to be done to bring about a permanent change in attitudes here. A recent personal experience shows how real change is still some way off.

I was recently invited to partake in an industry forum held each month in Dubai under the Chatham House Rule. This means that you cannot directly report or attribute what was said at the meeting but can use the information it produces as background for commentary. After a convivial and informative meeting, this I did, in a column a few weeks back.

I had obeyed the rule but was told after my article appeared that some of the people at the forum "were not happy to see such a direct correlation between your visit and the press". My presence at further meetings would be "not really appropriate".