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Education & commerce boost US-Qatar understanding and relations

Interview - June 16, 2016

Six major prestigious US universities have full campuses in Qatar and US involvement is throughout the whole range of Qatar’s private sector, from huge corporations to SMEs and employees in Qatari companies. Robert A. Hager, Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Qatar explains the expanding network of opportunities emerging with greater interaction and understanding on both sides through education and commercial activities, as well as the potential the US economy holds for Qatari investors.  



What role do you think Qatar is playing in the region?

I think Qatar holds a very important position in the region, which is relevant in many ways. One is that Qatar has provided the US and the region with a strategic platform to support the struggle against terrorism. Another is its importance as one of the largest producers of gas in the world—it has been a very good steward of that critical commodity. Qatar has been a source of energy to countries that need that resource, particularly in Asia.

Moreover, it is worth highlighting Qatar’s position in the region, not only as a strong ally of the US, but also as a country that is able to keep relations with countries where we need to have dialogue. This has been part of Qatar’s diplomacy for many years, and it is playing a key role in how the world community is dealing with the issues of terrorism. It is also playing an important role in helping resolve conflicts, which is a role Qatar has traditionally had, and continues to have.


Do you see a better understanding from the US regarding this role Qatar plays?

When you think about the US perspective, it comes from many levels. At some levels there is a good understanding, but in other respects there is not. For example, you talk to an American on the street and you ask them if they know where Qatar is, and they may not be able to tell you, or even worse they may equate Qatar with Syria or Iraq and therefore with turmoil and violence.

I have been here for 10 years with my family, and this is one of the safest places I have ever lived in. Crime is very low here. It is a very good place for families. There are schools that have a variety of curricula in English; there are American, French, Spanish schools. This is a very cosmopolitan environment, and Americans may not know that.

First of all, I think there is a perception that we need to correct. We need to educate people in the US about Qatar, what the country is like, what the people are like here, and what the country’s vision is. I think people have not heard about this vision in the US.

Americans have suffered a lot in the Middle East. American soldiers have fought wars here and, as you can see in the presidential debates, there is a lot of talk about the next war. I think there is a perception of the Middle East as exclusively a violent place. There is a misperception that countries like Qatar, because they are in the region, are the same as Iraq or the same as Syria, when it is totally different.

On the other hand, there is also a very keen perception from the US government, from all its levels—particularly from the administration—that Qatar is a strategic partner and ally. The strategic and security relationship is quite strong, yet this fact does not necessarily get into the press.


As the first phase of the National Development Strategy 2011-2016 comes to an end, what are the main achievements you have seen in its implementation and what is the importance of this vision?

We have seen tangible changes, and I can attest to that. For example, His Highness the Father Emir and Her Highness Sheikha Moza bringing to the country and creating this very unique and important Education City. This, to me, has been a marvel; it has been a driver for the growth of the people here and of the perception of Qatar.

There are very few places in the Middle East, and for that matter outside the US, where you have six major prestigious US universities with full campuses as you have here. Bringing that to the country has been a beacon for the region; I think it has helped the country, because it has opened avenues of education, which were not open before.

One of the most impressive things I have seen is the significant enrollment of women in these programs, including very technical programs. Texas A&M’s engineering school, for example, has 50% female enrollment. This is incredible considering that in the US most engineering programs are nearly 80% to 90% dominated by men.

That is important, and that is a sign of part of the development of the country, which is also focused on supporting women in the economy.

This is a path chosen by Qatar and one that a wealthy country does not necessarily have to take. Its choice, however, is instructive and makes Qatar a beacon for future progress in the region.


Certainly Qatar will set an example working together with American universities, but what is the role of the American businessmen?

The American business has a variety of different sectors, and it takes a variety of different forms. We have the big companies that people hear about—such as Boeing, ExxonMobil—and there are large companies here that are helping the country develop or market a resource; there are companies that provide a service or equipment and there are support businesses as well. For example, Boeing is supporting Qatar Airways, but is also providing support for the defense and security of the country.

In addition, we have the educational sector. The key to the relationship is the extent of knowledge transfer between the US and the Qatari parties.

And we should never forget we have US individuals who are working here, embedded in a Qatar organization, helping them as a consultant, as a secondee, assisting in a variety of technical matters and transferring know-how. We also have them in the Qatar private sector.

There are different forms of US private sector involvement, but I see them as complementary, and show the broad picture of the Qatar-US relationship.


How is Qatar currently positioned compared to other countries in the region concerning the drop in commodities’ prices?

That is a very good question, and it is absolutely correct to say that the oil shock really is a call to speed up diversification. You cannot depend on being a commodity-based economy in the long term; you need to be able to diversify.

It is not a question of the resources going away; the issue is that as the value of the resources decreases, new sources of value need to be found. You will continue to have to maximize the value of this important resource. But, that said, diversification helps for the future and it helps you survive shocks in prices. You want to allow the next generation to have a full complement of choices, and that is really what part of diversification is as well: giving the next generation more opportunities. That is what we can do for our children, and what Qatar wants to do for its children.

I think we are seeing this accelerate, and I think the US can help in several ways. We can help with the expertise. We have a very strong history of incubating and supporting knowledge-based companies. This is a small population, and knowledge-based does not mean you need 1,000 people to do something: it means you need a lot of good smart people. With a small population, a knowledge-based economy is a good way to look at the future. You can leverage knowledge much more than having to leverage people.

When you look at start-ups in the technology sector, in healthcare, in so many different sectors, the US can be an example. It is important for US businesses to be a part of this, and assist with this, because it also fits with the US vision. We have grown from a manufacturing-based economy to a service economy, to an economy more and more based on smaller knowledge-based business units. We see that is very complementary with Qatar.


AmCham has two pillars in its 2016 action plan, which has to do with environment and human development. What are the activities you are promoting in this sense, and with whom are you working?

Even though the US-Qatar relationship is many years old, we are a young entity; we just started in 2010. We have about 130 companies. Part of our mission is to help US companies that are here, to help the commercial relations between the two countries and to broaden the relationship.

We put a lot of emphasis on our work with the educational institutions here. Many of them are full members; many of them are on our board. If you bring US institutions here, and they flourish, then US companies will flourish, because there is a corollary. US companies will flourish with more people understanding the US outlook, and having some of our educational institutions here helps demonstrate that.

US businesses will be beneficiaries of that. And I think the country will also benefit, because that is probably one of the more effective ways of knowledge transfer: the knowledge that these institutions have, the strength of their faculty, and the experiences their students have.


AmCham has signed an MoU with the Qatar Chamber. What are the main advantages that this MoU presents for American and Qatari businesses?

First of all, it opens a wonderful network. The Qatar Chamber of Commerce has a network of local businesses that is extremely broad. These are very strong successful businesses that are in multiple sectors. Some of these are family businesses that have been around a while and operate everything from construction companies to hotels to technology companies to car dealerships to restaurants. They run the whole gamut of the economy.

Integrating them with a broad network of US chambers brings in opportunities for US businesses to come to Qatar, and for Qatari businesses to look into the United States.

We talked earlier about diversification. Well, diversification also means diversification in investment. For years, Qatar has invested in its own country in order to develop its resources. It has taken some of the funds that it has received from these resources and begun to invest heavily in Europe, particularly in the UK and France. But it needs to diversify those investments. It is not as large an investor as other countries in the region are in the US, for example.

So it is looking to the US as part of its investment diversification strategy, taking advantage of the positive things about investing in the US. These positive things being the US economy is very strong, the dollar is strong, the US economy’s resilience through several different shocks, rule of law, a variety of different types of investments in multiple sectors and a very large consumer economy. All these make the US an attractive investment.


What are the main opportunities for Qatari companies willing to invest in the US?

There are certainly opportunities in real estate – real estate broadly, not just in home purchases. Investment in commercial properties, properties that have good cash flows, and in various markets in the US. Real estate is always on the top of any list in terms of an investment strategy.

Also, investments in what you know. Qatar knows the gas industry very well. I would not be surprised if it also looks to invest in gas, chemicals, and similar types of companies in the US. And prices are pretty good in that area right now, because of the drop in the price of oil.

I can see opportunities in multiple businesses. Qatar has a very strong aviation business. Qatar Airways has been extremely successful. I can see investments in the aviation sector, in healthcare – which is a big industry in the US and an important industry here. There are certainly a lot of sectors that present opportunities for investment in the US.


Finally, which do you think should be the main points of discussion in the second edition of the US-Qatar Economic and Investment Dialogue Forum taking place this year?

They had a very good dialogue last year, and touched on some very important issues concerning the US, such as protection of intellectual property. There are other issues that are important to US businesses here that bilaterally can be dealt with as well, such as standards, making sure that we feel, as a chamber, that American standards are considered – whether they be safety standards, labor standards, technical and efficiency standards, or environmental standards. We feel that some of these standards are the best in the world, and though we do not want to make an exclusive regime of US standards, we do want to make sure that our friends here in Qatar are considering them when they put a tender in place.

We have a lot of US infrastructure companies working here, managing projects, and many are committed to best practices. It is important that this commitment be considered when you compare an American company to a Chinese company, for example. It is important to review that, and to look at under what standards they are working, and how can that benefit the country. For example, given the importance of the environment as a pillar to Qatar’s development, we believe that US companies adhere to some of the best environmental standards in the world.

In the dialogue, any barriers to setting up businesses are issues that need to be addressed. This is bilateral; there are things that the US can do to encourage further Qatar’s FDI in the United States.

It is complicated. Certain things in America are easy; you can create a company in six minutes, for example. But navigating the rules that maximize your tax benefit is pretty sophisticated and takes you a while. So these are all things that should be on the table; they are valuable discussions and there is an interest on both sides. There is a warm relationship between the countries on the commercial side, and that is going to continue.


You are not only the Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce, but also a partner at Squire Patton Boggs. Plus, you have lived here for 10 years with your family. What was that experience like for you?

I was the Managing Partner of Squire Patton Boggs’ Doha office for six years, and now I spend part of my time here and part of my time in the United States. I was very privileged to be here with my family and I thought it was a wonderful experience on many levels but, particularly, it was very important for my family to grow up in a very strong, cosmopolitan, multi-cultural environment.

People outside Qatar do not realize this is a place where there are people from all over the world, where you interact with people from different cultures, from different backgrounds, on a daily basis. I think it is a wonderful experience for children, and I have been amazed and impressed that Qatar has been able to attract people from all of these places.

I think it has been valuable for the country, and personally it has been valuable for my family. This is a place where people can bring their families, meet people and make friends from all over the world. Those friendships last a lifetime, and the gift we give our children is that they look at the world differently now, and they are able to look at things with a broader perspective. It helps them understand other cultures. This understanding has a value.