The Prince, the SWF and Cod

The titles were out in full swing today as I had lunch with the ambassadors of: Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Syria, Yemen, Malaysia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. There was also a Crown Prince, a Baroness, and every other person I met seemed to be a Lord or at least have three letters behind their name. But security was surprisingly light at the Middle East Associations 15th annual luncheon. Our guest of honour was Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham, the minister of state for trade and investment (we do so love our titles in Britain). Diggers shocked the nation when he, a guru of private enterprise, became a labour party minister. It would be like Baroness Thatcher becoming the president of the institute of socialist thought.

Diggers spoke of Sovereign Wealth Funds and how welcome their investment is in Britain – one of the few countries without a blanket ban on these funds. He spoke of the opportunities in the Middle East and how the areas of global importance are moving eastward away from America and towards MENA and Asia.

I was invited to this lunch as a guest of Jersey Finance – the financial arm of the Government of the Channel Island of Jersey. There is no doubt that this little island in the channel between France and England is a well established offshore financial centre in Europe but it has great ambitions. It is making itself into a hub for sukuks, Shari’a compliant and Islamic Investment Funds. These funds are set up by European private equity houses to invest or raise money in the Gulf Region or by Middle Eastern private equity houses to invest in Europe.

Jersey is responding to what many in Europe are calling “the global power shift” from the US eastward. But looking around the room today there was a lot of grey hair on show. Britain was once a huge empire and has been actively investing in the Middle East for at least the past 60 years. And if we look to antiquity, trade has been ongoing between Europe and the Middle East almost forever. In fact, Italians learned the basic skills of glassmaking, for which they are so famous, from the Arab world.

So why such a frenzy for a piece of the action in the Middle East right now? High oil prices and a continuous weakening of the US economy mean that emerging markets are the place to make money. But, then again, they always have been. Most of the wealthy families in Jersey made their money in Cod trade when Canada was but a colony, according to Jersey Finance’s Chairman Pierre Horsfall, CBE (Commander of the British Empire).

But in the end all empires must fall and now it seems to be America’s undoing.