There’s London, New York, and Hong Kong, of course. More recently, Miami and Singapore have made strong cases as emerging financial hubs. And now — Abu Dhabi?
In April, one of the hedge fund industry’s biggest names, the billionaire investor and Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio, announced he was opening a branch of his family office in the the UAE capital city as part of his wider push into the Middle East. And in recent years, Abu Dhabi has successfully attracted the attention of other top financial firms. Billionaire Alan Howard, the co-founder of Brevan Howard Asset Management, has sung the praises of the hub in the UAE, having also opened an office there earlier this year.
H.E. Ahmed Jasim Al Zaabi, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development (ADDED), told Fortune CEO Alan Murray that he clearly agrees. Speaking at Fortune’s Global Forum 2023 on Tuesday, Al Zaabi said that he expects Abu Dhabi to wear the region’s financial crown in the next two to three years.
After that, the goal will be to take on the likes of London and New York—tied for first place in the City of London Corporation’s annual benchmarking study—as well as emerging cities like Miami, which has enjoyed a surge of interest as it has continued to attract billionaire names and investment—most recently Jeff Bezos, with reports surfacing shortly after that Amazon is on the hunt for office space in the Florida city.
Al Zaabi is confident in his city’s ability to compete, saying the area has “all the attributes” needed to become a major global financial hub.
“We’re the safest city in the world, we’ve got amazing infrastructure, we’ve got progressive regulators and progressive regulations in general,” Al Zaabi said. “I think it’s only logical for the financial center of Abu Dhabi to become one of the biggest.”
He added: “We’re on a trajectory regionally [to] probably be one of the biggest if not the biggest in the next two to three years. Of course that will [then] be competing globally on that first place and I think we’re on track to do so.”
“Very famous names” such as Ray Dalio—who will appear at Fortune Global Forum on Nov. 28—and bluechip firms are only adding to this outlook, Al Zaabi continued: “Big names are already [here] and are on track to be [here] soon.”
‘Regulators never listen’
For Howard, whose fund holds more than $35 billion in assets, according to Bloomberg, the attractiveness of the Middle East comes down to it being, well, in the middle of everything: “You can see the [Bank of Japan] beginning of the day and at the end of the day you can see the Fed.”
For Al Zaabi—who is also chairman of Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM)—a major advantage is the relationship he established with regulators early on in his tenure, which began in 2021.
“It’s very simple. My problem with regulators before I became the chairman of the financial center is they never listen, regulators never listen,” he said. “So the first thing I did when I stepped into the financial center is sit with the regulators and say: ‘I want you guys to listen to the market and accordingly work towards regulations or deregulations vis a vis what the market is asking for.”
Abu Dhabi’s fresh approach is certainly paying off. Over the past three decades construction has boomed across the largest emirate in the United Arab Emirates.
With the growth has come big Western names as well as major regional players. JPMorgan Chase opened its office in Abu Dhabi in 2010, joining Citigroup which had been in situ since the 1970s. Goldman Sachs announced earlier this year it would be opening its first office in Abu Dhabi, pending final regulatory approval.
The no-nonsense relationship with regulators formed a major part of what has made Abu Dhabi so attractive, Al Zaabi added: “That made a big difference in how people perceive the ADGM and why it became so attractive.
“I think that’s why we’ve grown exponentially and we’ve been doubling every year.”
A custom court system
To support the influx of powerful customers making their way to Abu Dhabi, stakeholders also invested in a bespoke court system practicing in an English Common Law jurisdiction. A common law jurisdiction ensures continuity across multiple countries, as courts operate under the same statutes set out by previous English cases, rulings, and legislation, collectively known as common law.
Similarly to counterparts in Singapore and Hong Kong, ADGM also established a hybrid common law court which in turn is attracting legal talent to the region.
“My belief is we’ve got the best bench of judges worldwide, and that bench is getting stronger and stronger,” Al Zaabi explained. “It’s attracting a lot of the best judges in the world.”
As a hybrid court, relevant parties can also appear either in-person or virtually, meaning the authority didn’t skip a beat during COVID.