Over lunch on the first day of MEED’s Arabian Hotel Investment Conference, some of the UAE’s most influential decision-makers were discussing the future.

Emaar Properties chairman Mohamed Ali Alabbar said he had recently returned from Indonesia, which offered huge opportunities for his company. Emirates chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum reported that Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 will be operating within months. There was agreement on the top table, however, that the biggest challenge facing the Gulf is a shortage of skilled labour.

Mozambique’s Tourism Minister, Fernando Sumbana Junior, was listening carefully. Why not, it was suggested, use Africa to address the Gulf’s future labour needs?

More than five million foreigners work in the GCC construction industry. Most come from the Indian subcontinent, but the projects boom in India is draining the projects domestic labour pool.

Damaged reputation

The Gulf construction industry is seeking other sources, but none seem to consider Africa to be an alternative. Based on current trends, up to $500bn in workers’ remittances will be generated in the Gulf in the next 20 years, but little of it will benefit the people of the continent.

There may be good reasons why the economic links with the Gulf are so weak. Africa’s reputation has been damaged by the impression – in part due to the campaigning work of well-meaning celebrities like Bob Geldof – that the entire continent is an irredeemable shambles. This impression has been compounded by undeniable facts, most recently the events surrounding Zimbabwe’s presidential elections.

History, including the role Arabian states played in the African slave trade, weighs on some attitudes. In these circumstances, it’s unsurprising that people don’t give Africa a first thought.

But the truth is that the continent is not a single entity. There is a world of difference between the conditions in South Africa and Botswana, which have solid infrastructure, and the truly poor states such as Mozambique, where per capita GDP is barely more than $1,000. And within each country, there are sharp regional differences.

Hospitality institute

It is undeniable, however, that Sub-Saharan Africa is, on average, the world’s poorest place: yet there is more that is good happening there than bad.

At a time when the oil-exporting countries of the Middle East are enjoying unprecedented levels of oil income, the region has never had so many opportunities to change the world.

Repelled by trends in the US economy and evidence of a slowdown in Europe, private Gulf investors are turning to the Far East – but Africa could get a bigger share of their money if the right steps are taken.

At the AHIC lunch, the idea was floated of setting up a hospitality institute in Maputo, where young people might be trained before being assigned to work in Gulf hotels. After a period of three years or more, they could return to Mozambique to begin jobs in its emerging hospitality industry or to set up small businesses.

Gulf investment

Dubai hotel operators say they are prepared to cover the cost of the training. Perhaps development agencies could finance the construction of the buildings themselves. Over a decade, thousands of people might benefit in a way that also added value to the economies of the Gulf. It would be a small but constructive contribution to the effort needed to lift tens of millions out of poverty.

But perhaps it is time to think in more ambitious terms about how Africa and the Gulf can co-operate. Already, private Gulf capital is being invested in sub-Saharan countries in hotel and real estate projects. But the most lasting gift will be equipping people with the skills they need to transform their lives and their communities.

The Gulf knows that its great wealth entails huge responsibilities. And there is no greater duty than to help the less fortunate nations of Africa, which import most of their energy from the Middle East.

Over lunch at AHIC 2008, an idea was conceived that might inspire a larger and more ambitious effort to combine African talents with Gulf finance and ingenuity. It won’t just happen on its own. But happen it should.

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