Leaving Turkey was a bit difficult for me. Although I had been in the country for only a week, I had become quite fond of the place – in many ways, the hustle and bustle of Istanbul reminded me of my hometown in India and my days growing up there.
Arriving in UAE was a bit familiar to me. A country that I had never visited, yet one that I could somehow visualize even before setting foot on. Neatly planted trees, well maintained roads and buildings, many south Indians around – sounds like another country that I know of? Yep, the Singapore of the Middle East.
The first thing that catches the visitor’s eye is the audacious and grandiose architecture all around. The need to be the tallest, biggest, most awe-inspiring – well, that is palpable all over the Emirates. It is that same spirit that I noticed at Masdar Institute. A futuristic vision for a low-carbon city, Masdar is where dreams are being brought to life. In almost any other place in today’s world, most things being researched and developed at Masdar - such as the Personal Rapid Transit that costs roughly $1M for a vehicle that houses six passengers (a bit exaggerated because amortizing the underlying infrastructure over more vehicles than the currently operated 10 should show a more flattering figure) – would be deemed “unviable” on the basis of returns on investment. Yet, at Masdar, grandiose visions for tomorrow are promoted and pursued. The finance guy inside me frowns upon this skeptically, but the dreamer inside me marvels at this spirit. I prefer to be more a dreamer than a finance guy.
Our visit to Masdar was followed by a stop at Booz & Company, one of the more well established top-tier management consulting firms in the region. At Booz, we heard the firm’s views on the water sector in UAE and the GCC. Their perspectives were well-informed and backed by logical analysis. As we would hear throughout our stay in UAE, more efficient and cheaper desalination technologies can benefit the country greatly. From Booz, we also learnt that agriculture accounts for the majority of the water use in UAE, and an important step to reduce the water demand would be for the nation to focus on the crops where it has a comparative advantage and import the rest. That, however, is wrought with food security concerns and job loss issues. For a country where more than 80% of the population is foreign, how does the job debate go?
At any rate, the final company pit stop was Metito, a leading provider of a suite of water technology and management solutions in emerging markets. I found their presentation to be the most impressive and clearly articulated. I could not resist asking a lot of questions about the sector, and what I learnt was quite eye-opening – in short, the water business is not an easy one, margins are thin and projects face significant off-take and counterparty credit risks, and deregulation of the midstream and downstream sectors is important for private sector participants to thrive. I also confirmed something I had always suspected – that entrepreneurship in water is extremely challenging given that the end product is perhaps the most fundamental resource and therefore needs to be priced really low for the end user. The silver lining I could see is that deregulation could offer companies the opportunity to segment the consumer base and offer differentiated pricing.
Well, so much for the official components of the trip. On the lighter side, I absolutely enjoyed UAE. In particular, I cherished the visit to one of the sultan’s palaces – the construction and rooms there reminded me a lot of my grandfather’s home in my native village back home. I was also happy to see many folks from Kerala (my home state) and enjoyed the opportunity to converse in Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala) with them. The last evening in Abu Dhabi, we all went on a desert safari and I was introduced to the mandatory driving requirements to obtain a driver’s license in UAE – dune bashing! ;-) The camel market was an interesting sight as well. Finally, Dubai – well, it is said that Dubai is paradise on earth, and I could not disagree with that statement. The highlight was probably getting to the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, witnessing the musical fountain at ground level from up there, and creating the famed MIT sign. We had to shell out a $100 to get up there – the reward is our undisputed claim to creating the MIT sign on the highest man-made point on this planet.
At least until the good people of UAE build something even taller…