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‘Diversification is not a luxury’: Abu Dhabi sets sights on financial services to stem oil price pressure

  • Fluctuating oil prices pile pressure on OPEC deal.
  • The United Arab Emirates pushes ahead with plans to develop financial services sector in Abu Dhabi.
  • New real estate developments aim to spur more growth in the region.

Abu Dhabi has set its sights on developing a booming financial services sector in a continued push to diversify the United Arab Emirates' economy as its comes under continued pressure from oil prices.

The UAE and other OPEC and non-OPEC countries are trying to reduce their reliance on oil prices to power their economies. Together they hope to slash oil output by almost 1.8 million barrels a day to reduce a global glut to prop up prices, which tanked in early 2016. In early trading on Wednesday, Brent Crude was trading at $52.09 a barrel while Light Crude was seen at $49.52, well below the $60 targeted for this year.

As Gulf Arab economies seek ways to diversify into other sectors, the UAE is pitching its capital Abu Dhabi as a new center for investment, particularly in financial services, where it hopes to provide a gateway to neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, as well as the rest of the world.

View of Abu Dhabi skyscrapers, United Arab Emirates.
DeAgostini | Getty Images
View of Abu Dhabi skyscrapers, United Arab Emirates.

'Diversification is not a luxury'

Abu Dhabi, situated along the coastline from Dubai's international finance center, is seeking to capitalize on the UAE's more than 40 years' experience in the financial services industry and is aiming to double the contribution of financial services to its economy over the coming years.

"Diversification is not a luxury," Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh, chairman of Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), an international center situated on the city's Al Maryah Island, told CNBC in its first live Middle East Business Update.

"This particular sector, financial services, is being targeted by the government for a lot of growth.

"The markets of the kingdom are very sophisticated, the banks are very sophisticated," he continued, noting ADGM's geographical and jurisdictional strengths, including its close relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

"This common law jurisdiction and the amount of attention we are receiving from the world to come here means, of course, an increase in liquidity so there will be more liquidity coming through our financial center to our markets, including other GCC markets," he said.

"I think the reality that the price of oil will be at certain levels, lower levels than what they've been historically, has helped us drive the message home that financial transactions - not real estate, not other things – financial services need to become a big part of our GDP.

"All the government plans in the next years include growing the sector, not just here in the UAE, but across the region," he added.

However, financial services are just part of the growth story emerging from Abu Dhabi.

Investment is other sectors, including transportation, Medicare, infrastructure, and property indicate the Emirates is on the move.

Affordable real estate

A series of new mid-market residential properties are currently in development to house the growing number of people expected to fill public services roles in the region.

The Bridges will consist of six mid-rise towers, each offering 212 homes, situated on Al Reem Island.

Mohamed Al Mubarak, CEO of Aldar Properties, the company responsible for the development, said the investment would create a "domino effect" for growth in the region.

"We're giving people the opportunity for the first time to acquire a high quality, high-grade apartment in a fantastic location," Al Mubarak told CNBC.

"They're going to be getting it at a very affordable price, and this allows the community to flourish. You will have teachers; you'll have nurses, you'll have doctors, you'll have people working in the destination all living on Al Reem Island."

The properties are aimed at the 40-60 percent of people in the city who fit within the "mid-income" stream.

Abu Dhabi's real estate sector has suffered mixed fortunes of late, with property prices, both commercial and residential, down in the first quarter and expected to continue to be subdued throughout 2017.

But Al Mubarak is optimistic.

"We have to be patient," he said, looking at the growth of the region over a 5 to 15-year horizon.

"2016 was a tough year, but we still came out on top. The fundamentals are strong. We've seen strong demand in The Bridges from a pre-release perspective.

"The market likes this price range, the market likes this product, and we feel that this is just the start of a positive 2017."

'We don't want to see shocks in the prices'

These developments will be crucial to the UAE going forward as it remains committed to the deal signed by Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other countries to cut production by 1.8 million barrels per day from January.

Speaking to CNBC last week, the UAE's Energy Minister Suhail Al Mazrouei admitted it would be "tough" to reach the $60 average price target in the near-term but said that in any given day price fluctuations could take prices up to $60 – or higher.

"We don't want to see shocks in the prices. We would like to see steady growth," said Al Mazrouei.

"We are not concerned about the price; we are concerned as an industry about the level of price that is adequate."

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