Middle East market still attractive to Korean firms

Bae Hyun-jung in Seoul/The Korea Herald

Seoul (The KOrea Herald/ANN) - Despite the rise of Southeast Asia, the Middle East market is still big, important and rich enough to attract Korean firms, especially medium-sized ones seeking to expand their business overseas, according to a senior partner of a top Arabic law firm.

"The business potential in the United Arab Emirates is very much ongoing," Stephen Forster, a partner at Al Tamimi, the largest and the most influential law firm in the Middle Eastern region, told The Korea Herald.

The senior lawyer, who is also the head of the company's branch office in Abu Dhabi, recently visited Seoul to participate in the Korea-UAE Economic Partnership Forum.

"The key purpose of the forum was to deepen the economic relationship between the two countries and to encourage more Korean companies to kick off business in the UAE," he said.

Al Tamimi is especially targeting competitive medium-sized firms positioned right below top conglomerates, he added.

"We have quite a few Korean conglomerates in our client list and one of the purposes of our visit this time was to expand our network into their headquarters here," Forster said.

"But because the Middle East is a dynamic market, a wider range of business opportunities are available for smaller companies, especially those specializing in infrastructure development and energy."

Abu Dhabi, for instance, is all out to boost the non-petroleum energy sector in the upcoming years, he explained.

"Unlike the conventional oil and gas market which has been dominated by major companies, this new sector is quite young and technology-focused, which means that it is open to competitive smaller-sized companies," he said.

Companies involved in renewable energy and high-technology manufacturing, such as airplane parts and electronic goods, may hold an advantage in the region, he added.

"We also have ongoing demands for infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and metro systems, all of which are the fortes of Korean companies," he said.

To those firms that decide to step into the UAE market, Al Tamimi, as a local legal advisor, has a variety of services to offer, the Abu Dhabi office chief said.

"With its diverse population and business-friendly stance, the UAE has few social or economic barriers for foreign firms," he said.

"There are, however, areas in which companies need professional legal assistance from local-based organizations."

One of the legal restrictions for foreign firms is that they have to allocate 51 percent or more of their stocks to local shareholders. They also need to find a national sponsor when opening up a new branch.

"In order to meet these requirements, companies need to communicate actively with the local authorities, a process which is not always so easy," Forster said.

"One has to understand the local culture and become acquainted with the subtlety of the communication."

Because the laws in the UAE are not so detailed, business transactions usually come down to practice and communication, he added.

"Some claim that the world's business focus has shifted to the Southeast Asian region over recent years," Forster said.

"But companies need to understand that the current UAE market will maintain sustainable growth in the coming years, which makes it crucial for foreign companies to establish a local partnership and network."