By Nazeer Ahamed
The government should urgently explore the possibilities of attracting foreign investment from the Middle East. There are vast funds available with Middle East entrepreneurs who are looking for prospects to open businesses in the eastern part of the world.
The war was over three years ago, but Sri Lanka had not been able to attract substantial Foreign Direct Investments (FDI), especially from the Middle East. A proper economic strategy targeting the Middle Eastern countries should have been designed targeting the potential investors, immediately after the war. This could have helped to develop the country, generate employment and alleviate the suffering of the poor masses.
However, it’s not too late to cash in on the eagerness of Middle East business persons to invest in Sri Lanka. Given the proper signals and the opportunity they would love to invest in Sri Lanka largely because of the long historical connections between us and the Arab countries. Moreover, because of the huge number of Sri Lankans being employed in the Middle East, the Arabs are more than familiar with the country and her people than they are with other Asian countries excluding the Philippines. In other words Sri Lanka needs no introduction.
Nevertheless, a proper climate must be created to attract Middle East investors. Once the climate is created the prospects of an economic boom would be amazing. Sri Lanka had excellent infrastructure facilities already in place and the country could be advertised as a ‘One Stop Shop’ for investments by the Middle East countries.
There are stumbling blocks, however, that have to be cleared if we are to have any success in attracting investments from the Middle East or anywhere else. One is the attitude of the bureaucracy which looks upon all investors like as if they were ‘robber barons’. Most bureaucrats don’t have the required knowledge in commercial practices and tend to pass the buck to other governmental institutions just to escape responsibility. Thus we find potential investors been sent from pillar to post, seeking approval from this or that institution much to the embarrassment of their local agents or collaborators. This red tape must be eliminated and all foreign investment procedures should be brought under one roof if we are to have success in attracting foreign investment. Also the requirements or conditions should be reduced to a bare minimum.
Bureaucrats must be trained to identify the good from the bad like their counterparts in Singapore. They must be taught to evaluate investor profiles and to assess projects on their merits as fast as is possible.
Another aspect is the strict visa regulations that deter foreign nationals from travelling to Sri Lanka first as tourists and then as investors. It is true that most countries impose strict visa conditions for Sri Lankans wishing to travel abroad. But we cannot reciprocate in kind if we wish to attract tourists from the Middle East or elsewhere. We must be pragmatic.
The other priority is to create a think tank comprising of people familiar with Middle East business culture and attitudes to explore and exploit the potential for Middle East investment in Sri Lanka.
The writer is the deputy leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress
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