Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, the Sultanate of Oman: the Gulf countries attract companies from all over the world. In Qatar, Belgium is not lacking, for various reasons.
Despite its small size and young age (the country has only been independent since 1971), Qatar has become an important economic player. Today much criticized for issues related to ethics, respect for human rights or global warming, the Emirate is in fact a very attractive region for businesses.
Despite its small size and young age (the country has only been independent since 1971), Qatar has become an important economic player. Today much criticized for issues related to ethics, respect for human rights or global warming, the Emirate is in fact a very attractive region for businesses. “It is not about excusing Qatar on some negative aspects around the World Cup, but we focus too much on these topics when there is a huge and undeniable economic reality that we cannot ignore if we ‘want to develop our turnover,” says François -Xavier Depireux, Belgian and founder of the company LD Export, specialized in supporting SMEs in this region of the globe. With an area three times smaller than Belgium and with a very limited internal market (less than 3 million inhabitants), “the country is one of the richest nations in the world,” recalls Dominique Delattre, Inspector General of the Geographical Department of Wallonia for export (Awex). Its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is $85,660, compared to $48,210 in Belgian GDP per capita. A wealth that it owes in particular to its abundant reserves of fossil energy, mainly natural gas. For Belgium, the Emirate is therefore an important supplier of gas, which accounted for up to 90.64% of our imports from this country in 2021, well before the start of the war in Ukraine. But it remains a smaller trading partner: 70th customer from Belgium and 61st from Wallonia. Conversely, the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, mechanical and electromechanical machinery and equipment, metals and plastics are the main Belgian export sectors to Qatar. Exports that went from 290 million euros in 2020 to 400 million in 2021 and that even doubled between 2019 and 2021 from Wallonia thanks to the pharmaceutical and chemical sectors (33.04 million euros). Qatar’s economy is still largely dependent on hydrocarbons, which account for 50% of wealth creation, 94% of exports and 80% of budget revenues. But the country has entered a new phase of development, wanting to further diversify its economy, with growth also generated by other activities. “Besides energy, the key sectors for Belgian businesses are construction, sport and leisure and tourism,” Dominique Delattre points out. “There are also development opportunities in healthcare and IT,” adds François-Xavier Depireux. “The renewable energy sector, wastewater treatment and agro-industry are also sectors where development possibilities are interesting,” explains Qaisar Hijazin, secretary general of the Belgian-Arab Chamber of Commerce. “The country is trying to follow the evolution of the diversification initiated by Dubai and Saudi Arabia a few years ago”, analyzes the inspector general of the AWEX geographical department, who recalls how Dubai has now become a commercial stronghold where major trade fairs are held international held. “But if Dubai has long been favored by companies, there is growing interest in other countries in the region,” adds François-Xavier Depireux. For Belgian companies, these Gulf markets have become strategic. Due to limited local production, products and services from Europe are highly sought after and demand is steadily increasing for the region’s 40 million potential buyers. And thanks to its emblematic foreign investments, Qatar benefits from a growth effect that is disproportionate to its real weight. Enough to encourage Belgian companies to invest there? “This decision is important and requires deep thought, admits Dominique Delattre. Qatar may be among the shortlist of Belgian companies wishing to invest in the region, but these will probably favor another country whose market size is more important. But the Qatar is a gateway to development in the Middle East, it is a very open country that benefits from a dynamism in terms of investments: “The Qatari market is small, it shouldn’t expect to make the same volumes as Saudi Arabia”, admits the founder of LD Export, installed in Bahrain for five years.However, precisely this small size is what motivated Châssis Hanin to try the adventure there “It was interesting to be able to enter a market the size of Wallonia. It was more reassuring”, explains Mathilde Rutot, the boss of the company, which has opened a branch in Doha with perhaps other ambitions for the future. “What works in Qatar works in other countries in the region,” recalls Qaisar Hijazin. “ Qatar is interesting in terms of growth, notes Arnaud Jacquemin, founder of the Belgian company Univers Drink, which offers festive soft drinks and has been exporting to Qatar for eight years. The turnover of distributors is, in proportion to the size of the country, greater than that of the others in the region.” In any case, one primary criterion is essential to successfully develop an activity in the emirate: quality “Made in Belgium is recognized as a brand of quality” Qaisar Hijazin rejoices. But a criterion that is not necessarily sufficient. “Even a product without competition will not be sufficient to win the favor of a local decision-maker, warns François-Xavier Depireux. Because in Qatar the mentality, culture, customs and traditions are extremely different. A word, a gesture, a smile, a frown, a yes, a no, a handshake, a hug… it’s all in the details to gain the trust of future partners. But above all friendship. Here is a fundamental relational value. It is very different from Asia or the United States”. Very few Belgian companies are actually active in Qatar. The Arab-Belgian Chamber of Commerce estimates their number at 40. The best known company, and present for several decades, is the group Besix But Awex recorded 20 to 30 requests for information from Walloon companies in 2021. “There has been a particular interest in Qatar for two years; the World Cup offers its share of opportunities”, acknowledges François -Xavier Depireux. But precisely because of the controversy surrounding this World Cup, few companies easily communicate their investments, now avoiding shouting from the rooftops that they trade with Qatar”. confidential projects, explains Mathilde Rutot, whose company has a permanent headquarters in Doha Obviously some aspects, according to my European perspective, could be improved, but I install chassis, I don’t engage in politics and above all I don’t give lessons”. “They are very young countries, recalls François-Xavier Depireux. From a European point of view, the efforts they are making to change are not enough, but in reality they are advancing by leaps and bounds”. “From my point of view, we are exporting Belgian know-how, continues Chassis Hanin. We are very popular abroad. The specificity of Belgium means that we have a certain facility in understanding other cultures.” An observation shared by the founder of LD Export, who recalls how much the Belgians tend to underestimate themselves when they can offer real added value.