Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry (BCCI)

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry (BCCI), Deputy CEO, Yousif Ahmed Al Mahdi
I am a true believer in the role of Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI.  Not only in Bahrain; in any country it is so crucial to have a representative for the private sector. Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI.

Bahrain is ranked No. 1 in the GCC and 33rd of 127 economies in Forbes’ Best Centers for Business 2009 report, confirming that the Kingdom is better placed than many other nations to weather the current global economic downturn. How would you define and characterize the major advantages Bahrain has over other countries?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: First of all, thank you for having me today and welcome to Bahrain. If you want to compare Bahrain size-wise to the rest of the GCC or to the rest of the Arab world, we are a very small country. Yes, we have a lot of added advantages on our GCC neighbors and other comparative economies in the world. One of the advantages of Bahrain could be that we are a very free country in terms of our economy. Our government adopts a free-trade economy policy. The natural trade is not only restricted to Bahrainis; GCC nationals and foreign nationals can come to Bahrain and start their own businesses. Other advantages are that Bahrain is 100% tax free, and we are strategically located in the center of the GCC. We link between East and West, and if you look back into the history of Bahrain prior to the oil boom, Bahrain used to be the transit point between India and Asia, and the rest of the Arab world and Europe.

Dr. Essam Fakhro said “BCCI is committed to work with the government to realize the goals of the nation’s Vision 2030 of sustained growth and progress.” What is the main role of Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry in the economic vision 2030?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: I believe that the government of Bahrain realized that it is very strategically important to plan ahead in such a competitive world, by investing in the added-value points that Bahrain can deliver as an economy. It’s about having a road map, having a long term plan, which was visualized until 2030. I believe that the private sector’s role is crucial. We believe that our role as the representative of the private sector is crucial in determining the main elements of the strategic 2030 road map. We still meet frequently with the decision-makers in the government of Bahrain to ensure that the implementation of such a strategy goes hand in hand with the requirements of the private sector. We do consult with our private sector representatives, ensuring that the implementation of that plan has 10% added value, not only for Bahrain as a current economy, but also for Bahrain 25 years later on.

Is it the public sector or the private sector that is pushing reforms ahead?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: I believe that any reforms, including the ones taking place in Bahrain cannot be achieved unless there is a clear cooperation between the public and the private sector. Bahrain started a major reform exercise a few years ago, which includes an economic reform indication and a labor reform. The government of Bahrain, through the designated ministries, believed that the private sector’s role is crucial. There are several committees with the private sector represented by the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI , with the relevant government authorities including the Economic Development Board (EDB), the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, and the relevant ministries.

What has triggered these major initiatives to reform Bahrain two years ago?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: Bahrain realized that being dependant on natural resources including gas and oil cannot be sustained forever.  Being a small country, we truly believe in being a service-oriented economy, and we are to a certain extent. If you compare Bahrain’s GDP and the oil contribution to that GDP, we are approaching to be one of the countries in this region that are actively and aggressively trying to minimize the dependence on oil by coming up with other reforms and initiatives. Bahrain’s main reforms which include the economic and labor reforms, collectively through proper implementation by consultation with the private sector will hopefully give Bahrain an added value or added niche market for attracting further foreign direct investment to Bahrain. We are proud to be a country that heavily relies on our professional laborers. We have a great infrastructure in Bahrain that a lot of companies would favor versus other countries in the region. Our education reform plan will guarantee us in the near future better academia, better academic programs which would result in a better labor force that would be willing to have an added value to this economy.

Today, the Chamber has 10,000 active members and plays an important role in the country’s development in enhancing the private, commercial and industrial sectors. How has the global economic downturn impacted your members? Are they growing or remaining stable?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: The financial crisis really had an impact on the whole world; it’s a very unique global phenomenon. The impact of this global phenomenon varied from one region to the other. Thankfully, the economy of Bahrain suffered but not as badly as was anticipated initially. The private sector in Bahrain is still growing smoothly; if you look at the results of the financial sector in Bahrain, the investment banking, and other related industries such as the industrial and commercial sectors of Bahrain, the level of confidence is so high that it really minimized the impact. Some forecasts initially indicated that the crisis would have a long term impact. In my opinion, with the collective strong relationship between the public and the government sector in Bahrain, I am sure we will be able to pass such a crisis with minimal collateral damage.

What have been the sectors that were mostly affected by this crisis?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: Basically, if you look at the global scenario in general, the financial services globally were the most hurt. We had close relationships with the Bahrain Central Bank, and we are being briefed regularly by the officials there on what is the status quo, and we always try to pass on to them what our concerns are. So far, based on the CBB numbers, there is an indication that growth for 2008 could be a bit slower than 2007, and same with 2009. But have we reached a point where there is zero growth? No. I think we are still in safe hands. I think what we need to do is to advocate consumer confidence. We need to ensure that the ball is rolling, that the government and the private sector practice by advocating customer policy and consumer confidence. That will definitely bring the situation to its normal level, hopefully.

The mission of the Chamber is to provide outstanding services to enhance the private sector’s role in stimulating economic development. What have been the latest innovations, improvements and magnets to attract investors and to add value to the members?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: We are proud to say that the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce is deemed the oldest chamber in the Gulf. We celebrated our 70th anniversary; we were established back in 1939. We have a lot of initiatives and plans to advocate creativity. We just moved to our new premises last month. Based on our current strategic plan and through our new state of the art premises, we have a lot of programs that we are trying to examine and trying to use to advocate and support the private sector. Some of the innovative plans include the creation of two centers, one to support the SME (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises), and one dedicated to export training. The idea is that innovation and creativity must be looked at, not only at a local or regional level, but it should be looked at on an international level. We are proud to say that Bahrain is the first country in the region which signed a free-trade agreement with the United States. Having such an agreement, the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce is working closely with our American counter parts to utilize their innovation and their programs, and how to advocate the interests of the private sector in Bahrain.

One of the main roles of the Chamber is to welcome foreign representatives and to forge long lasting relationships with Chambers across the globe, working towards higher foreign direct investment. What is the potential of the Bahraini service sector and industry to export the growth?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: I think this is a very important question; we cannot leave Bahrain to focus on specific sectors when it comes to exporting. When we do export aluminum through ALBA, we export petro-chemical products through GPIC, and we do have a set of specialized factories and garments that export primarily to the United States. I believe that to really push the economy in order to be more creative and innovative, we need more tools to help support our small to medium sized enterprises to be more able to export. Such a strategy has been adapted by Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI . The government of Bahrain also realized the importance of having a stronger export capability. I am sure that within the coming short number of years, more success stories of small and medium sized Bahraini companies will appear. I hope to have you back at that time in Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI so that we can reexamine this question again, to have some success stories and show that we are really progressing.

What are your personal vision and the vision of the Chamber of Commerce for the industry and commerce in Bahrain?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: I am a true believer in the role of Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI. Not only in Bahrain; in any country it is so crucial to have a representative for the private sector. We use our role to advocate for the interests of our members. We try to utilize every opportunity to make sure that the private sector in Bahrain benefits the most. There are a lot of services that we offer to our members currently, but we have a lot more programs and services coming ahead. Part of our initiatives is to convert Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI to an e-chamber, to have more services online, to utilize the adoption of technology, which became a global phenomenon not only in Bahrain but worldwide.

What market would you like to see being developed in the future, what export or import destination?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: If you look back at history, at Singapore, for example, Bahrain and Singapore have a lot of similarities. Bahrain is about 712 square meters, whereas Singapore is about 702. We as Bahrainis have the cosmopolitan culture; the same thing applies to Singapore. Singapore went through several phases in the past 50 years. From an economy perspective, they started out as a labor-intensive economy, followed by being into heavy missionary sort of economy, followed by being a technological based economy. Right now they are in a stage where they are a more knowledge-based economy. I would really like to see Bahrain one day – and I am sure that day is not far away – being more of an innovation or knowledge based economy. If you look at what the whole world needs right now in terms of what countries can provide, technology and knowledge represents a big share of many countries, which are able to grow. Hopefully by having the right government policies, and the right initiatives and commitment from the private sector to develop Bahrain one day and adapt fully to a knowledge-based economy.

What has the Chamber done in terms of strategy and policies towards sustainable development, both yourselves and towards your members?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: BCCI is a firm believer in sustainable development. If you look at Bahrain’s role toward global issues such as the green house effect, Bahrain actively through our royal authorities and ministries have adopted initiatives and programs to minimize pollution, to invest further in green technology. Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI has supported a lot of initiatives in terms of planting further greenery in Bahrain, and we are working very closely with our industrial sector, such as ALBA, GPIC, and BANAGAS in adopting further policies to minimize pollution. I am also proud to say that through our bilateral trade agreement with the US, we have advocated technical assistance in the environmental issues. And that was a success story by having several American experts in Bahrain who provided both the government sector and the relevant government agencies with added value in how to control and minimize pollution. Have we done enough? Not yet. Can we do more? Definitely.

What are your main challenges?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: One of the main challenges is to be able to offer all our members what they are really looking for. As you can see, the role of the Chamber throughout the years has changed dramatically. As I mentioned, there is further dependency on technology, innovation and creativity. The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI realized that such demand exists, and to reflect that demand it has invested further in human resources, professional people with exposure and experience to take upon such demand by providing programs and strategies. Based on our strategic plan, I am sure that within the coming three years, our members will be using and utilizing some very state of the art services.

To facilitate this technological exchange you have to go to the US or technological markets in Europe. How do you facilitate working with advanced technological centers to basically add value to your members?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: We came up with several initiatives to improve our services to our members. One of these latest initiatives was a delegation from Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI that went to Las Vegas to attend the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Such initiatives primarily in the ICT and IT sectors have provided us with high professional exposure to new services and technology that Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI can adopt. We are working very closely with our Chamber sisters all around the world, primarily in Europe and the US, as well as Asia. Having such success exposure and learning from their success stories, we came up with a lot of programs that need to be evaluated to ensure they are compatible with our needs and requirements that are currently presented through our members.

How would you like the Chamber of Commerce to transform Bahrain? What is your dream for the future?

Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI: The role of the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry – BCCI is crucial. I believe that any initiative including the Bahrain Vision 2030 cannot be implemented without examination from the private sector. The role of the Chamber in the past and presently and in the future will still exist as a crucial and important role in terms of advocacy for the private sector, and showing its interests. Being the oldest Chamber in the Gulf, we have collected a lot of knowledge which will differentiate us and help Bahrain to reach its dream to be the best environment for foreign direct investment in the region. I truly believe that if such close cooperation between the private sector and the government continues at the same pace, I am sure that we would really look at Bahrain and be so proud to be a part of this culture and economy.

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