Middle East: Assessing the Dubai International Financial Centre

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Dubai’s success as a financial centre depends on whether or not it has succeeded in its aims. And what were they?

Dubai DIFC-600  


Euromoney has been visiting the Dubai International Financial Centre regularly since its foundation in 2004, but it wasn’t until a visit in February that it occurred to us that the centre is now so big you can get lost in it. 

Once just the iconic Gate building, the complex now sweeps into neighbouring precincts and developments, and hums with restaurants and members-only business clubs.

Ten years on from its foundation, then, can we anoint DIFC a success? Well, that depends slightly on what you think it was for. A banking centre? A fund-management hub? An employment magnet? A real-estate project? An exchange?

The cynical think of it as primarily a real-estate enterprise, and if you take that view, clearly it’s done very well. The financial crisis apart, there has been consistently high demand for premises within the centre, and although some of the office towers are said to be not full, the scale of the place is now impressive. Talk was of a target of 50,000 workers in the zone at its inception in 2004. That hasn’t been met – it is thought to have about 15,000 – but it would be churlish to say it hasn’t achieved a critical mass.

Fund management

As an international banking centre, probably the best endorsement comes from the entire building filled by Standard Chartered, which has set up its head office for the region within the zone. International banks are pretty much all represented, though not enough of the Islamic banks that were also a stated target of the centre at its inception.

Fund management? That’s a tricky one. The client directory is a list of the great and the good of global asset management, but to this day, most of them are made up of a sales team whose primary purpose is not to bring money into the UAE, but take it out again, to be managed in head offices in London, New York and Geneva. 

There are instances of local on-the-ground portfolio management taking place – Man Investments, Franklin Templeton, Schroders – but they remain the exception. If it was ever an intention to facilitate international capital entering the UAE, that’s not really what it’s done.

The international-style regulatory regime within the DIFC is secure and trusted – hence the presence of the foreign banks. But what about the big ambition for the exchange within DIFC? Nasdaq Dubai is a long way short of being any sort of regional equities exchange, but it has carved out a useful niche for listed sukuk.

After a decade, the jury’s still out.