Paul Maloney

UK-UAE CEO Forum Should Focus on Vibrant SMEs As Much As Big Business

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Last week saw the announcement of the UK- UAE  CEO Forum which will be co- chaired of Samir Brikho, CEO of AMEC plc and Nasser Al Suwaidi, the Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development.

This long awaited announcement follows on from earlier efforts to increase bi-lateral trade between the two countries from £7bn to £12bn (42bn- 72bn AED) by 2015. The forum will serve as an important platform for the business community in both countries, allowing them to champion trade between the UK and the UAE as well as offer business leaders the chance to influence policy.

Whilst membership of the forum is yet to be announced, it will be interesting to see its composition, and what if any will be Small and Medium Enterprises SMEs.  I say this because they are often overlooked by policy makers and civil servants;  who when establishing boards, committees and reviews, see their own contribution and that of big business as the only necessary elements for policy development.

The mission of both nations to drive up trade is mutually beneficial. It will help Britain’s battered economy, giving UK based business greater reach and influence in the UAE. For the Emirates it offers greater offshore opportunities as well as the chance to help diversify their predominately oil and gas based economy. Further to this is, it will help energise and transform the UAE’s enterprise base, in order to make the private sector more appealing to Emiratis and help reduce the over reliance on public sector jobs.

To make this happen both nations have trumpeted the importance of a vibrant SME sector as a key catalyst for economic growth and innovation. But as someone who has seen his fair share of trade panels, forums and commissions- it is often the little guy who overlooked in the policy debate, due to the myopic view that big business is best. Don’t get me wrong I am not anti-big business. We all dream of running a big business one day, but until I do let’s help each other by letting SMEs have an equal say.  Here’s why.

1. In the UK SMEs provide 60% of the private sector workforce and 85% to 95% of the work force in the UAE. So although small, collectively their contribution to GDP and employment figures is huge.  As the UAE looks to encourage more and more Emirati nationals into the private sector, it will be a well- developed SME sector that will be responsible for providing jobs.

2. Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 talks about ‘engine’ sectors that will fuel the high tech, high growth industries that Abu Dhabi aspires to. These industries are fuelled by innovation.

According to the UK’s Federation for Small Business, SMEs account for 64% of commercial innovations, their size is their strength as it allows them to quickly respond to demands of consumers more quickly than large business often at a fraction of the cost.

3. Tough economic times have seen many businesses fail. However many SMEs have weathered the storm. Their size allows them to expand and contract their business model to suit the current economic situation, so they prove more robust.

So what can governments do to support this vital part of the economy?

Well for a start, civil servants should listen a lot more to SMEs when formulating long term policy. It is SMEs and not big business that create the majority of industry innovation and jobs in both the UK and the UAE. So when it comes to developing policy aimed at boosting trade, it’s a no brainer to seek the input of the group that will provide the greatest contribution?

It is a plain and simple case of listen first and develop the policy after. This is something the CEO Forum aims to do, but without the views of SMEs from both the UAE and UK, I feel it may produce procedures that may hinder innovation and limit the potential for growth.

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