REJUVENATING OLD TRADE TIES
The newly launched British Chamber of Commerce in Qatar has a mandate to help SMEs in both countries, says Peter Cook, the man at the helm of the project.
The newly launched British Chamber of Commerce in Qatar has a mandate to help SMEs in both the countries, says Peter Cook, the man at the helm of the project.
Afew days before the Lord Mayor of the City of London Alderman Alan Yarrow is due in Doha to officially inaugurate the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC), we had a sit down with Gareth O'Brien, the Director of Trade and Investment at the British Embassy in Qatar, and Peter Cook, charged with heading the new entity. Considering the deep and historic ties between the United Kingdom and Qatar, a British Chamber of Commerce is one of those things you assume Qatar has until you hear otherwise. Peter Cook nods. A career diplomat who was posted to Doha 24 years ago, he is back to head this long- overdue institution and embark on an
"What the media coverage in the UK about Qatar, good or otherwise, has done is raise awareness about the country's potential."
GARETH O'BRIEN Director of Trade and Investment British Embassy, Qatar
“important new adventure.”
Working closely with the embassy and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) (which will also be initially funding it till it can be self-sustaining), the Chamber has a mandate to “support business, bring them together and in the process facilitate dialogue on trade, investment and technology exchange between the two countries”. This was something set in motion by British Prime Minister David Cameron a couple of years ago, Cook says. “He recognised that BCCs all around the world must be strengthened for better overall trade performance; in many countries where chambers already existed, they were a a bit out of date and needed fresh energy, and in other countries, like Qatar, there wasn't one to begin with and we had to start from scratch.” The BCC in Qatar is part of broader political ambition to have a stronger network of institutions around the world helping British companies penetrate new markets. Forty one new chambers are due to open soon, we are told. In the region, the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar, will be part of first wave.
The BCC in Qatar has its eyes set on the SME players. O'Brien's team of 11 trade and investment professionals at the embassy deals with all manner of British companies looking to make inroads in Qatar. But the need was felt for a better focus on the “thousands of small and medium businesses who approach the UKTI every year,” according to him. In the months to come, many of these companies will find themselves working closely with the BCC. “The larger companies might work closely with the embassy because the needs of the company would require that level of support,” Cook says, “The relationship between us [BCC and UKTI] is good so we can deliver services across a wide range of companies. Our work will be complementary so that no one is left behind.”
This spotlight on SMEs couldn't have come at a better time, both for the BCC and the Qatar government. “Qatar is making a big push for expanding the country's SME sector,” O'Brien points out. “We'd like to help with that by working with them to drum up business, develop contacts in British companies and create stronger links between the two country's SMEs.” This will include showing Qatari companies the opportunities that exist in the UK for them and the partnerships that they can make to advance their business interests. “Qataris are very familiar with London. But there are other parts to the UK that they don't know so much about. We want to introduce them to businesses and industries there (there are 52 local chambers of commerce in the UK alone) and give them the relevant information on regulation and a platform for networking,” Cook says.
Talking about the other side, while British SMEs continue to show interest in the traditional sectors like energy, infrastructure, construction & contracting and communications, Cook's ambition is to go beyond that and stimulate interest in new sectors. “We are very excited about building up areas where Qatar hasn't been traditionally strong by bringing in new expertise. The UK has a diverse economy, is strong in many sectors, and so we can help Qatar pull ahead in these sectors.” Which is, again, exactly the direction that Qatar wants to go in.
Cook and his small team will almost immediately start laying the groundwork
for these big dreams. Speaking about the range of services the BCC will be rolling out shortly, he says, “Any businessman coming to Qatar knows it takes a while to set up the company. They might find it daunting – a different language, culture and business processes. So part of our service is to make that as smooth, easy and quick as possible. Also, there is a lack of understanding of the opportunities that exist here. So another service we'd like to develop is advertising these opportunities to companies across the UK and raising Qatar's profile there so that it is accurate and closer to the picture of what's happening down here.” In the long term, the BCC will work towards self-financing its operations through its services and investing profits in assets that could further support new projects and ventures.
The challenge for SMEs will be to balance their long-term vision with the short-term reality. “Though some SMEs tend to look to the future, most have to concern themselves with short-term survival. They'd love to be here doing business in ten years, but for them it's more about next month. So we have to convince them of both the long and short-term prospects. Yes, there is a bright future here for British companies but they have to take steps to prepare themselves for that by investing sensibly, making the right partnerships in the sectors and building up their businesses to be well placed for the future,” says Cook, pointing out that his emphasis is to persuade companies that short and medium are just as good as the long term, but the long term is why they are making the investment today.
When asked whether the recent bout of negative press in Qatar may influence British companies looking to do business here, O'Brien says, “What the coverage in the UK, good or otherwise, has done is raise the awareness about Qatar. We are now getting more enquiries from British companies than ever. They don't just look at the headlines but dig down for the details and see the potential. There is a huge interest, especially around the FIFA World Cup and the related infrastructure, and there is enough business for everyone.”
"We are very excited about building up areas where Qatar hasn’t been traditionally strong by bringing in new expertise."
PETER COOK Managing Director British Chamber of Commerce, Qatar
Lord Mayor of the City of London Alderman Alan Yarrow at the British Embassy in Qatar to inaugurate the new British Chamber of Commerce.