Spotlight on Greece for Middle Eastern Business Leaders
By Max Bleyleben, Contributing editor, Introducing Leaders – Athens
There is a new generation of political leaders in Greece who are responsive and open for business, so said Rashad Magber, Secretary General of the Arab-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, at the Introducing Leaders’ CEO Roundtable for Greece and the Middle East in Athens during the first week of November.
“For Middle Eastern companies, Greece is a gateway to Europe, not just geographically but also culturally and emotionally”, added Panagiotis Mihalos, Secretary General for International Economic Relations, who delivered an impassioned keynote address.
The event – organised by Introducing Leaders in a strategic partnership with Middle East Business Magazine and News and sponsored by Dolphin Capital Investors – brought together CEOs and government representatives from Greece and the Middle East for a lively debate on possibilities for increased trade and investment in the region. Senior Greek executives from the shipping, finance and real estate industries laid out a range of opportunities for visiting guests – from joint-ventures in shipping to the potential for Middle Eastern banks to enter the Greek market.
The event was opened on behalf of the Greek Government by Panagiotis Mihalos, Secretary General for International Economic Relations from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr Mihalos welcomed guests and called for closer collaboration with the Middle East. His recent delegations to the Middle East have sought to further connect Hellenic companies with potential partners and investors from the region.
On behalf of the Middle East, Rashad Magber, Secretary General of the Hellenic Arab Chamber of Commerce, delivered a speech reinforcing the historic and modern ties, and the current investment opportunities that further unite Greek businesses with the Middle East.
A unique and exclusive contribution came next from the World Economic Forum (WEF). Nick Davis, Director and Head of Europe at the WEF provided an upbeat assessment of Greece’s economic turnaround , entitled, ‘Unlocking Regional Resources – Greece and the Middle East’. In this follow up to last September’s WEF regional meeting in Turkey, he pointed out that – thanks to reforms implemented by the Government – Greece’s underlying competitiveness had improved significantly, supporting an IMF forecast of GDP growth of 2.9% for 2015, and putting the Hellenic Republic ahead of Spain and Italy in terms of intrinsic growth potential.
Davis was assigned to deliver this exclusive presentation as a result of Introducing Leader’s successful organisation of a Greek business delegation to the WEF Annual Meeting of the New Champions. This event was held last September in Tianjin, China. The delegation included high ranking executives from Piraeus Bank, National Bank of Greece and Vianex, and was supported by Enterprise Greece.
In her inaugural speech Amal Daraghmeh Masri, Editor in Chief of Middle East Business News, said “Contrary to the perception of many internationals, any growth projection might not be based primarily on the wealth of oil or gas reserves in the region, as there are many sectors are ripe for investment. These vary from construction, energy to banking, tourism and IT etc.”
Middle East Business News had exclusive access to the closed-door roundtable at the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens, which included visiting representatives of Qatar Holdings, the Arab Planning Institute, the Government of Kuwait, Bahrain Financial Harbour, Al Quds Holding Company, QInvest, and Jerusalem Pharmaceuticals and local diplomats. Guests were engaged in three successive roundtable discussions on the topics of cross-border investment, real estate and shipping, moderated by Amal Daragmeh Masri and Introducing Leaders Contributing Editor, Maximilian Bleyleben.
Greece’s newly consolidated banking sector was described by Piraeus Bank Deputy Managing Director, Spyridon Papaspyrou, as being ‘open for business’ as intermediaries and guides for Middle Eastern companies or investors looking to access Greek markets. “Greek banks are continuing to focus on consolidating their acquisitions and cleaning up their balance sheets. This means there is little capital available to provide credits to Greek businesses”, he said. But – as other panelists pointed out – this clearly creates opportunities for foreign investors to partner with Greek banks, and for foreign banks to establish themselves in Greece.
Meanwhile, the Greek insurance industry – which has long had a mix of foreign and domestic providers – is rebounding on the back of progress in reforming the pension system, according to Alexandros Sarrigeorgiou, Chairman of the Hellenic Association of Insurance Companies.
The most immediate investment opportunities were revealed in the roundtable session on real estate. Greg Dounis, CEO of the Public Properties Company (PPC) – which is charged with managing and disposing of the Greek state’s huge portfolio of 70,000 properties – explained that his remit is to ensure the most attractive properties are cleared of any residual legal liability and pre-licenced for development before offering them up for sale. The PPC welcomes interest in particular from GCC investment funds to review its portfolio, which includes everything from residential properties in the heart of old Athens, to commercial buildings, to beachfront estates and even ski resorts in the north of the country.
In order to attract individual investors into the country, Greece plans to extend its residence-for-investment scheme, by allowing those who invest more than €250,000 in Greek property to obtain 5-year residence permits for themselves and two families. The residence period counts towards an application for citizenship, effectively giving access to an EU passport for those prepared to invest in and commit to Greece.
When asked “Why invest in Greece?”, Miltos Kambourides, founder and Managing Partner of Dolphin Capital Investors – which has raised more than €1bn to develop luxury resorts in conjunction with brand partners such as Aman Resorts and Nikki Beach – said that Greece ticks key boxes for him: high tourist visibility, little presence to date of luxury hospitality brands, and nearly limitless acres of prime beachfront property. Its new flagship resorts include the spectacular Amanzoe beach club and spa in Porto Heli, overlooking the island of Spetses.
Panel participants pointed out that Greece is seeing record numbers of tourist arrivals in Greece – even compared to the years before the financial crisis. The continued growth of the industry – which is expected to contribute some €17bn to the economy in 2014 – will require many billions of additional investment, which can only be satisfied with an increase in foreign direct investment.
One of Greece’s youngest and most dynamic shipowners, Harry Vafias, founder and CEO of StealthGas and Brave Maritime and key supporter of the Introducing Leaders initiative in Greece, led an intimate yet global discussion with an elite shipping panel which included event contributor Deloittle Greece’s CEO, George Cambanis, the founder and CEO of Blue Wall Shipping and Phoenix Shipping & Trading, George Gourdomichalis, Danaos Corporation CEO, John Coustas, and President of the Hellenic Chamber of Shipping, George Gratsos. Gourdomichalis – whose company has been acquiring ships through the downturn and is now one of the largest owners of dry bulk capacity – pointed out that in recent years his ships have made increasing numbers of visits to Gulf States, not just transferring cargo between Asia and Europe, but also carrying loads between ports in the Persian Gulf.
When asked by Deloitte’s global leader for shipping and ports expert, Mr George Cambanis, whether the ebola virus was having a negative impact on shipping, opinion was divided; shipowners pointed out that there have long been protocols in place to deal with infectious viruses and these are effective enough to prevent the spread of ebola. “Nothing will stop or impede commercial trade, it’s simply too critical to the world economy”, Gourdonmichalis pointed out.
Harry Vafias, whose company recently raised $83m from investors including Michael Dell for further fleet investment, appealed to attendees to assess their shipping strategies and to consider exploring joint ventures with Greek shipping companies in order to reduce third-party logistics costs. “There is no reason why we can’t leverage our expertise to come together to find a more efficient model”.
Furthermore, George Xiradakis of shipping financier XRTC pointed out that Greek shipowners still face a scarcity of financing, which creates opportunities for Middle Eastern banks to enter that market. In the debate that followed, several GCC representatives agreed to explore this idea with their Greek counterparts.
The roundtable discussions were followed by a lively evening reception, giving the participants an opportunity to explore business connections face-to-face. Nidal Gaith, of Al Quds Holding, described the unique challenges of developing property in East Jerusalem and was keen to compare notes with Greek property developers. Special guests at the reception at the King George Hotel in Athens included His Excellency Marwan Toubassi, ambassador of Palestine to Greece.
Introducing Leaders is a strategic business initiative that brings together global leaders, visionaries and shapers of the business world in order to create new opportunities for trade and investment. Introducing Leaders will be working in partnership with Middle East Business News to launch bilateral strategy roundtable discussions across the region during 2015 and unique business publications for partnering economies.