1493344382214 - Mike O’Donnell: $53m taxpayer investment in Dubai expo worth every penny

Mike O’Donnell: $53m taxpayer investment in Dubai expo worth every penny

OPINION: While I’d never actually vote for him, I quite like the ACT leader David Seymour.

Apart from the fact that he’s not Don Brash, he’s seems to have a lot else in his favour. 

He’s smart, has rejuvenated the previously befuddled ACT party and has taken positions on controversial matters like assisted dying and homeless people.

Seeing a doyen of the right empathise with street people and the LGBTI community has caused many to think again when it comes to characterising ACT.

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Seymour has also displayed refreshing humility when he’s stuffed things up.

The most memorable example of this was boldly announcing that  “the French love the coq” during the recent flag debate.

The humanity and embarrassment he openly displayed was a pleasant contrast to the teflon-coated pomposity that some of his predecessors have shown.

But I think he fundamentally got it wrong last week when he labelled the decision to invest in Dubai 2020 as “surplus-drunk National wasting taxpayers’ money”.

He went on to describe the $53 million investment over the next four years as wasteful corporate welfare that will disproportionately benefit politically connected businesses.

I’m guessing Seymour hasn’t spent a heap of time in the Arabian Gulf, and almost certainly not much in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), or taken a look at the broad range of New Zealand companies that have established potent businesses there.

I started doing business in the UAE in 2014.

I found a group of leaders genuinely seeking world-class outcomes for its people in education, health and infrastructure; and passionate about broadening their economic base away from the hydro-carbons that have powered development for the last 40 years.

And for some reason New Zealand really punches above its weight in the UAE. 

There’s a serendipitous alignment between Kiwi and Emirati culture which has seen New Zealand enjoy a remarkably close relationship with this peninsula nation.

Part of this comes from some cultural similarities between the two countries, particularly the role of the tribe in both Maori and Emirati life.

Part of it is driven from a mutual respect for small countries blessed with great natural resources and integrity.

Former prime minister John Key noted it in his 2015 visit where he contrasted the “fantastic” progress in Dubai with Saudi Arabia, and said “we were going to work on”.

This has seen a host of Kiwi companies building successful export and distribution businesses in the the UAE. 

Examples here include premium brands like Burger Fuel, Whittakers, Maven Group and RockIt Apples, as well as big players like Fonterra, ANZCO and Tegel.

So when Economic Development Minister Simon Bridges announced that New Zealand would participate in World Expo 2020, I thought it was a no brainer.

Currently New Zealand exports $750m a year to the UAE, with two-way trade close to $2 billion. 

And that number has been growing solidly, such that the Arabian Gulf is now our fifth biggest trading partner.

Back in 2010 China hosted the Expo in Shanghai. Since that time New Zealand exports to China have grown 300 per cent. 

If the same holds true for Dubai 2020, then a $53m investment across four years to triple that trade seems pretty reasonable.

Importantly, it’s more than just the UAE. It’s the whole of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries – including Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia.  

And while each is rightly proud of their own achievements, my impression is that UAE provides the region with aspirational leadership. 

So harnessing that country as a beach head to expand trade in the region makes good sense.

What’s more the ambassador we have in Abu Dhabi at the moment is a “roll up your sleeves and get stuff done” kind of bloke who will actively work with Kiwi companies and Trade and Enterprise to leverage our early commitment to the expo.

There’s also good opportunity to boost tourism off the back of the gig.

There are now five direct daily Emirates flights to New Zealand, contributing $700m to the economy. Qatar Airways runs seven flights a week.

These won’t be the freedom camper brigade queuing up for loos in Tekapo.

An Emirati business colleague shared with me that his family dropped $238,000 on a recent seven-day family holiday to New Zealand.  

A bit more than the current average spend of $3300 per international visitor.

Dubai 2020 will have three thematic areas: opportunity, sustainability and mobility.

It’s apt that we have been invited to participate in sustainability, given the good work delivered by Plant and Food Research, Niwa and the Department of Conservation in UAE.

But I hope officials in country will harness the gig to rethink and broaden our brand offer.

This would see the expo stepping outside our known blue and green capability, to also showcase our world-leading IT proficiency and education credentials.

Perhaps then David Seymour might change his tune a little. 

Meanwhile, given his colourful messaging to the French, let’s keep him off hosting duties at the expo lest there be another “coq up”.

Mike “MOD” O’Donnell is an e-commerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is @modsta and he’s been involved in few cock ups. While this column is his personal opinion, he is also a director of Tourism New Zealand and of G2G Knowhow.

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