A Bahrain delegation’s business blitz in Atlanta included many high-level meetings, but the group stuck to a uniform message: that the small island nation is an easy gateway to the Persian Gulf region for Georgia firms.
“As Atlanta is a gateway to the Southeast, Bahrain is a gateway to growing opportunities in the Gulf,” a region with a trillion-dollar gross domestic product that should double in two years, said Shaikh Mohammed bin Essa Al Khalifa, chief executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board.
The board is responsible for formulating the country’s development strategy and attracting foreign investment. The trade mission brought chamber of commerce representatives and leaders from some of Bahrain’s largest state-owned companies. Shaikh Mohammed signed agreements with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to explore business cooperation.
Delegation members toured the Advanced Technology Development Center, an incubator at the Georgia Institute of Technology. They also met with companies including Suniva Inc., a solar cell manufacturer, and United Parcel Service Inc., which is looking to expand its business in the Middle East.
Overall, Georgia’s globally minded economic strategies were “impressive,” validating Bahrain’s decision to pinpoint the state for mutual business ties, Shaikh Mohammed told GlobalAtlanta in an interview.
“You have a track record that you should be proud of. You’ve achieved a lot at attracting companies, at growing business and creating jobs. We feel we are good partners,” he said.
Still, the two sides have to get to know each other better.
“Not enough people know enough about our part of the world,” Shaikh Mohammed said.
Economic bonds are already strong between Bahrain and the U.S. A free trade agreement enacted between the two countries in 2006 means that U.S. firms face no duties when exporting to Bahrain or transferring equipment there. American companies can own 100 percent of their Bahrain-based enterprises, and there are no restrictions on remitting profits back to the U.S.
Bahrain’s welcoming nature goes beyond its business climate, Adam Ereli, U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, told GlobalAtlanta. An open, democratic society with freedom of expression and religion, Bahrain shatters the typical American stereotypes of the Middle East, he said.
“When people think of the Middle East, they think of it as filled with strange people doing strange things,” he said. “I’m here to say that you will feel more comfortable as an American in Bahrain than you would in many places in North America.” He cited the recent rash of drug violence in Mexico.
Bahrain’s openness partly comes from its efforts to shift away from an oil-dependent economy and better integrate with the world. Although oil revenues still fund most state activities in the nation of 800,000 people, Bahrain’s reserves are small compared to its neighbors.
The recent Gulf of Mexico spill further validates Bahrain’s move away from oil, but it’s the need for a sustainable economy, not fear of an environmental mishap, that drives Bahrain’s diversification, Shaikh Mohammed said.
“Most countries in the Middle East can go to sleep at night and wake up richer than when they went to bed,” Mr. Ereli said. “They don’t have to do anything, whereas Bahrain has a real economy and it needs to compete, and in order to compete it has to be connected.”
This competition has led to a robust financial services sector, with more 400 financial institutions calling Bahrain home. A Bahrain-based investment firm, Arcapita Inc., has its North American office in Atlanta.
Despite its integration with the world economy, Bahrain wasn’t as negatively affected as some countries, because its banks were relatively conservative, Shaikh Mohammed said. Bahrain’s gross domestic product grew by about 3 percent last year.
The crisis, which started in the U.S. housing market and seeped into most major economies, proved the need for reforming financial regulations worldwide, he said. In the long term, though, the financial industry will return to growth.
“The fundamentals of banking and capitalism have not changed. I think prudence is no longer a four-letter word,” he said. “We see that the sector will start growing again globally. Yes, of course there are issues, but it’s not going away.”
The delegation was in Atlanta June 8-10. From here the group headed to Oklahoma City and on to Houston.