May 24th, 2010
10:36 AM GMT
There is a hobby that one sees retirees or others with plenty of time on their hands partaking in: They strap long metal detectors on their arms and with headsets in place scan the sands of the U.S. in search of a treasure. The prize is a few odd coins or a diamond ring that some woman has unwittingly left behind.
While I find the “sport” odd at best, the image crossed my mind while in Kuala Lumpur this week. The queues to pass through airport security and passport control were efficient, but long. Businessmen from Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East have switched on their radars in search of growth, but unlike those combing the sands they don’t need a lot of patience to find it.
During my few days on the ground, Singapore and Malaysia both reported 10 percent growth in the first quarter. China and Indonesia are running at nearly the same pace. That is stellar by any measure and the real concern is not a double-dip recession but asset bubbles forming in some of these Asian Tiger economies.
Malaysia’s Central Bank Governor Zeti Akthar Aziz said convincingly that she has it all under control, in an interview in her headquarters at Bank Negara. This explains in part why the bank raised interest rates twice already this year. Across the Straits of Malacca, Singaporean officials said they too want to stay ahead of this growth spurt.
We can leave this to monetarists to sort out. In the meantime, chief executives and other investors want a piece of the action and those flush with surpluses are making commitments. In the span of a week in KL, two of the most prominent Middle East investors, the Prime Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al-Thani and the Abu Dhabi development fund Mubadala signed on the dotted line.
Qatar committed to invest $5 billion in a series of projects from energy to real estate, matched by similar funding by investment funds in Malaysia. Mubadala wants a piece of the KL business district in the shadow of the Petronas Towers. The area could use a fresh capital injection - the Grand Hyatt has been a construction site for years with a completion date still unknown, according to one well-placed Malaysian.
Middle East investors feel very comfortable in Southeast Asia. The ties go back to the Spice Route days of the 15th century, when spices, palm oil and other products were traded between the two continents. That trade, in turn, planted the seeds of Islam in this corner of the world.
The vice-chairman of the well-known, Dubai-based merchant family, the Al Ghurairs, was on the ground in the city for a business forum where he is a board member. Communication is simple, says Essa Al Ghurair, one of the few from the region sporting a dish dash at the forum.
They speak the same business language. But there has been a dramatic shift which he acknowledges. Five years ago, Al Ghurair did not look east for growth. The natural inclination was to turn to Europe, and even more so across the Atlantic to the U.S. Today, the Al Ghurairs have invested in an Indonesian coal mine, amongst other projects.
I had a similar conversation with Bahraini banker Khalid Al Janahi, who took a break from a series of investment meetings to share his thoughts over a coffee. Simply put the growth is too good to pass up and unlike the German government’s new found effort to slow down speculative investments, the Asians are eager to engage those who have their radars of growth and, shall we say, opportunity, tuned in to the new land of opportunity.
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