Access: Middle East

Middle East to take 'rightful place' in world finance: DIFC chief

Dubai could become the Middle East's financial center
Dubai could become the Middle East's financial center

These days the oil-rich Gulf is synonymous with building big, especially in the real estate department. Skyscrapers, airlines and malls are just a few examples.

Now, the race is heating up to develop an international financial center—something the Middle East needs, according to Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) CEO Jeffrey Singer.

Earlier this week, the Global Financial Centres Index revealed four Gulf cities in the top 35 globally. On the list were Qatar, Dubai, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, ranking 26th, 29th, 31st and 32nd, respectively.

"As the region takes its rightful place on the international stage, I think you will see there will be more collaboration. But, in the short term, the competition does fuel growth and innovation," he told CNBC's "Access: Middle East."

Notable gains in the close contest were posted by Riyadh, which jumped 16 places, and Abu Dhabi, which leaped by 10 spots. Although Dubai dropped four places to 29th, it was still the only city in the region characterized as a hub with a global, rather than transnational or local, financial profile.

Yousef Gamal El-Din | CNBC

"I guess it depends which one you consult," Singer explained. "We're very happy where we are, but we're also seeking to make the DIFC even more competitive."

The annual report, prepared by "Long Finance" and sponsored by the Qatar Financial Centre Authority, also put New York ahead of London as the .

The 10-year-old DIFC has ridden the coattails of Dubai's recent economic recovery. Last year, the economy's strongest since the slump of 2008, saw the number of registered firms climb 14 percent to 1,039.

Part of the demand is being driven by Asian financial institutions seeking exposure to the growth stories of Africa and the Gulf, with strong interest from China as well.

Dubai, however, is feeling the heat in its own backyard. Next-door Abu Dhabi, just 90 miles away, recently launched the Abu Dhabi Global Market, a free zone that entices investors with similar perks, tax-free and with its own legislative system. The capital city of the United Arab Emirates is also home to some of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds, including the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

(Read more: Dubai refinances $20 billion of debt in landmark deal)

Singer has shrugged off suggestions it would take away business from the DIFC, arguing his district had the advantage of scale. "It's not unprecedented for a neighbouring jurisdiction to set up something that looks to be competitive," he said. "In addition, the pie is quite large."

Some of the region's leading bankers have told CNBC in recent months that more cooperation was inevitable among Gulf financial hubs if they are to thrive in the future.

Singer conceded not everybody was going to be a winner. "How it all pans out in the end is another story".

This week on "Access: Middle East": An exclusive interview with Jeffrey Singer, the CEO of the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). Tune in to find out how he intends to stay ahead of the competition, and what a real break from work looks like.

By CNBC's Yousef Gamal El-Din. Follow him on Twitter @youseftv.