Financial Footprints


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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The announcement by Credit Suisse this week that it wished to move into Qatar's finance sector has set 2006 off to a good start for the state's latest investment magnet.

In a statement issued by the Swiss lender on January 3, the bank said it was pleased to be among the first global financial institutions to apply for a licence to set up operations at the Qatar Financial Centre (QFC).

This application now goes to the QFC Regulatory Authority (QFCRA) for approval, and, all being well, Credit Suisse will then be on schedule to open a subsidiary in Doha during the first half of 2006.

"Credit Suisse has had a long-standing relationship with Qatar," Joachim H. Straehle, head of the bank's Private Banking Asia/Middle East/Russia section, told reporters. "The opening of the new QFC has provided us with a unique opportunity to set up onshore operations in this steadily growing market, thus reinforcing our commitment to the entire Gulf region."

This is clearly a welcome statement for the QFC's operators, who have been working hard to get the centre into the global spotlight since long before it officially opened, back on May 1, 2005.

The idea behind the centre is a familiar one, if given greater emphasis due to the surge in liquidity from high oil prices throughout the region in recent years. Project financing and private banking were the two areas long thought of as likely to be key in the QFC's development too, with the Credit Suisse move likely to see moves in both fields.

The centre is there to provide infrastructure, premises and administrative and legal services to international financial services institutions and major multinational corporations. It was set up by the government and is watched over by the QFCRA, which is an independent regulatory authority. Its rules are based on those in use in best international practice, and in particular those from the City of London.

One further body involved is the QFC Authority. This is the commercial, administrative and legislative organisation responsible for driving the commercial strategy of the QFC and for linking it up with other global institutions. The authority has also been busy introducing rules for the centre, with November 2005 seeing new, limited liability partnership and arbitration regulations, along with company rules that enable the full incorporation and registration of companies in the QFC.

Certainly, the QFC will have much to do in the years ahead. Widespread estimates suggest that Qatar will be spending some $60bn in infrastructure projects over the next decade, a mammoth amount of project financing therefore being required.

At the same time, the country is interested in attracting conventional and Islamic debt capital issuance, captive insurance, private wealth management and LNG trading. All of these are also the targets of the QFC.

Reeling them in will not be so straight forward, however. Given the range of financial centres also vying for custom in the Gulf these days, the QFC has had to do some serious thinking about how to stand out from the rest.

One way in which it feels it can is in providing a completely independent centre - and one in which there is a taxed environment.

The model being used in the QFC is one which sees a corporate tax rate of 10%, albeit after a three-year tax holiday. The advantage here, advocates argue, is that tax means higher standards of accounting and more transparency, both of which will in the longer run make Qatar more attractive as a trustworthy business environment.

Thus the emphasis too on strict regulations and international best practices governing a whole raft of possible activity within the QFC. Add in 100% ownership and full repatriation of profits, and the hope is this will sway investors towards Doha.

"We'll leave it to firms to assess whether there is an advantage in being close to the decision-makers here," Mohammed Al Thani, minister of economy and commerce, told reporters back in January. Qatar is not Bahrain or Dubai, the minister then reminded his audience, with the idea clearly being that such a difference should be increasingly reassuring.

Rivals Dubai and Bahrain already have more established and much larger financial centres of their own. The Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) has experienced fast growth in recent times, while Bahrain now has some 362 registered financial institutions - way ahead of Qatar.

Making up the difference will therefore not be easy. Yet there are plenty of strong reasons for thinking the QFC will nonetheless succeed. The country has the third-largest construction market in the region - recently estimated by some as worth $111bn by mid-December 2005 - alongside over 15% of the world's total gas reserves.

Such assets are major, with the Swiss lenders being amongst the first, it seems, to take the plunge and see the QFC as a useful way of "expanding its footprint in the Middle East", as the bank's press release put it. And such footprints are likely to be followed.

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