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Interview

Paul Boelens – Board Director, Benelux Business Council, Abu Dhabi

Paul Boelens discusses his role as a Board Director with the Benelux Business Council, the significant position of the Council plays within the business community, the attractiveness of the UAE as an investment destination, and his perspective on the outlook of the oil and gas industry in light of its recent turbulence.

You have been Director of the Benelux Business Council since May 2015. Please provide our readers with an overview of the Council’s main activities and presence in Abu Dhabi and the UAE as a whole.

The history of the Benelux Business Council dates back to 2010. We have been instrumental in solidifying bilateral relations between the three nations and the UAE, mainly Abu Dhabi. We are a small non-profit organization that acts as the voice of the business community in the region, interfacing between major stakeholders such as governmental and institutional actors, chambers of commerce and potential investors, and our members. This is primarily achieved through the planning, organization, and conduct of network events, both formal and informal.

Besides oil and gas, we also represent all other major sectors, including construction, healthcare, finance, transport & logistics, defense, telecommunications and industry. Around 20 to 30 percent of our members, or 400 to 500 companies, are in the oil and gas sector, with most of those being Dutch companies.

We also work very closely with the Dutch business council in Dubai, which has a slightly different client base including more small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), while we focus more on large corporate organizations.

Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have a shared history of conducting diplomatic business in conjunction, and each has their particular strengths, for instance, the Dutch as service providers to the oil and gas sector. How have these complementarities generated synergies in the Council’s work in Abu Dhabi?

We understand very well that cooperation and collaboration will increase our influence and the impact of our work and our main strategy is to capitalize on each other’s strengths to ensure the success of our initiatives.

Our core function is as an intermediary and as such, we rely significantly on our human capital to build bridges and interface between the various stakeholders. A natural anchor is the Dutch ambassador, Mr. Frank Mollen, and our Chairman, Vania Henry, as a Luxembourg National, retains excellent relations with the Luxembourg ambassador, Mrs. Nicole Bintner-Bakshian, and the Belgian ambassador, Ms. Dominique Mineur.

My experience with Shell in Western Europe serves me well in acting as liaison between the UAE and Benelux countries, as I am familiar with the majority of Western European countries in the oil and gas sector. This facilitates the Council’s work in this regard. I am relatively new to this position, having only assumed it in May, but I am keen to leverage my experience and connections. Thus far, I have assisted several Dutch companies in their evaluation of the UAE market and its potential, which has given me fantastic insights into their challenges and processes.

The Council is also constantly developing new ways of networking. For instance, at Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference (ADIPEC) 2016 in addition to the usual breakfast and networking events, we participated in the speed dating event on the last day. That was a novel and very efficient way of meeting many different people, and then there is still the option of following-up with the specific people identified as particularly interesting. I am also in touch with the Dutch Ship-owners Association, which is an important partner to the oil and gas industry through their involvement in offshore activity.

Since you joined the Council in May 2015, the industry has undergone turbulent times. What challenges and opportunities would you like to highlight?

There are major opportunities in Abu Dhabi and the UAE, but needless to say, there are also significant challenges to overcome. The current drop in oil prices has only exacerbated the characteristic volatility of the industry, affecting both big and small players alike.

To me, however, this represents a key opportunity to optimize the industry. Tough conditions drive efficiency, and we are already seeing companies seeking out efficiency gains by trying to accomplish more with less. Working smartly, developing and exploiting human capital and collaborating with partners are all becoming increasingly important, and this is an aspect where business councils must play a role.

Turbulent conditions provide opportunities to evaluate the foundations of an industry. For instance, in oil and gas, it has become evident that a talent gap is emerging; the industry has many veterans with decades of experience as well as many newcomers, but there are very few people at the in-between stages of development and experience. This endangers the future success of the industry, especially if important skills and expertise cannot be transmitted easily to future generations. Thus, educational outreach and development programs are also an important element of our work, though they form only a small proportion of our activities at the moment. We would like to work more with universities and other educational institutions to develop youth training programs in order to educate the next generations of industry leaders.

Political instability is a major concern for investors in the MENA region, but the UAE has always been a beacon of light because of its stability and its fair and transparent business environment. How do you think the UAE, and Abu Dhabi specifically, can remain attractive to foreign investment?

Within the UAE, the current focus is on Dubai because of the upcoming 2020 World Expo. But I must emphasize that Abu Dhabi has its own Economic Vision 2030, and there is an undeniable energy and vibrancy in this city that makes me feel very privileged to be able to work here, in addition to the stability you have already mentioned. The government has a clear vision and plan for the future, which is crucial for driving overall economic growth.

Speaking more specifically about the oil and gas sector, what differentiates Abu Dhabi is the palpable optimism surrounding the sector. The Economic Vision 2030 has invigorated this industry, as well as the related renewables sector. One of the paramount challenges for Abu Dhabi and the UAE, if not the region and the world as a whole, is to find ways to deliver more affordable and cleaner energy. This is a complex problem that will require immense resources—human, technological and capital—to generate the sophisticated solutions required, as well as promote cooperation between all stakeholders involved. As a Dutch national, I draw from my own experience of the Dutch’s expertise in water management and associated projects of flood control. The Dutch are accomplished at planning, design, and climate adaptation which exhibit a lot of similarities with Vision 2030.  Both are extremely complex projects with very short lead times. The Netherlands realized that we had to use innovation to brainstorm smart ways of working, since conventional methods would not be successful. This collective experience is something I believe the Dutch can offer the Emiratis, and this spirit of innovation is an important element for the success of the UAE’s ambitions.

What advice would you offer to potential investors looking at Abu Dhabi and the UAE for investment opportunities?

In this climate, it is crucial for potential entrants and newcomers to reach out to established companies in order to learn from their experience. There are many opportunities here but it is also a highly competitive landscape. The challenge is finding the best solutions, which need to be tailored to this market. Firms need to evaluate all the available resources and technology, and experience is a valuable asset for this endeavor. For instance, a key opportunity and simultaneously a challenge here is the presence of sour gas fields. Shell has more than sixty years of experience in gas field development and management of economic viability.  It is quite evident that this   expertise provides benefits to the local community and new international entrants.

We facilitate this by connecting businesses and people – when companies approach us with a problem, we can usually point them in the right direction or give them the contact of another company that can help them.

What is your outlook on the future?

My main mission at the Council is to help companies turn commercial capability into commercial success. My background as a Dutch national who has worked in oil and gas means that I am involved in the industry and I am committed to its success. The biggest challenge right now is the low oil prices, which has implications for the way businesses manage expendable capital for the next few years, but there are still many growth opportunities. Thus, I feel very privileged to be able to work and live here.

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