Mr. David Rubenstein, founder of the worlds largest private equity firm The Carlyle Group, has in his many industry presentations cited Christopher Columbus (the famous early voyager to the Americas) as a first in Private Equity! To fund his voyage to discover the “new world,” Columbus pitched his plans to Queen Isabel of Castille for the $10,000 he was trying to raise. The Queen after three years of ‘due diligence’ finally made the deal with Columbus promising him 10% of the profits, 5% of the gold, reimbursement for all expenses in advance, and a title of admiral for life. Nice deal!
Similarly, as a reflection of the historic role Arab voyagers and traders have played in world civilization, Mr. Arif Naqvi, CEO of one of the largest Private Equity funds in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region, has also been referencing the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor and the early Arab seafarer traders and the spice routes carrying frankincense from Yemen. This historical role is certainly being manifested today as well in the form of the economic boom the MENA region is experiencing.
An Industry Emerges
Driven by a three-fold oil price increase in the last four years, the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) nations have experienced extraordinary economic boom clocking an average 6.1% GDP growth in the last three years and liquidity estimated by KMPG to be in excess of US$2.3 trillion.
At the same time, the Islamic Finance industry continues to grow un-abated with an estimated US$ 750 billion in global assets growing 15-20% annually – with the GCC accounting for 2/3 rd of its size (S&P and HSBC analysis.)
The result of these two trends is a boom in Private Equity investments in the GCC and the broader MENA (Middle East & North Africa) which includes a growing trend of Islamic Private Equity funds as well. According to the 2007 Dow Jones Private Equity report, the MENA region has raised $16 billion since 1994 out of which $10 billion were raised in 2006. $1.1 billion are estimated to be Islamic Private Equity funds.
Today – local Private Equity players Abraaj Capital, Global Investment House, Millenium Finance Corp.(MFC) and even the global PE behemoth Carlyle Group have setup mega funds in excess of $1 billion focused on the region. Of these mega funds, the MFC funds are marketed as Islamic PE funds.
So what is Islamic Private Equity anyway? What is driving this trend and what is the impact of this trend?
Convergence of Islamic Finance & Private Equity
Commenting on Islamic Private Equity, Mr. Fuad Al-Shehab, General Manager of Investment Group at Kuwait based Boubyan Bank which together with Ryada Capital recently launched the $150 million Ryada Islamic Private Equity Fund said, “Private Equity is a natural fit for Islamic investors since at the core of Shari’ah principles money should be directed to the real economy through investing in businesses that offer ethically acceptable products and services. This means that returns should be earned through active involvement and participation in the business risk in Shari’ah compliant investments.”
There’s certainly a growing realization that private equity amongst its other benefits is quite compatible with Islamic finance.
To understand the principles that are driving this convergence it’s important to understand some core underlying principles. Aamir A. Rehman, a former Global Head of Strategy at HSBC Amanah, and Boston Consulting Group consultant, explains that Islamic finance is more than just financial contracts. He has identified the following core basic tenets of Islamic finance that Sharia’ scholars draw upon:
- If something is immoral, one cannot profit from it
- To share reward, one must also share risk
- One cannot sell what he or she does not own
- In any transaction, one must clearly specify what he or she is buying or selling and one price is being paid
Mr. Rehman says that as the Islamic Finance industry is growing it is also maturing in terms of its richness of products being offered-from commercial banking, insurance to structured products, the Industry has near like-for-like parity with conventional offering. However, he points out that the Industry still needs to deepen and address a variety of investment product gaps. As real estate and equity assets have matured, and structured products and cash management products are maturing–sophisticated products such as Private Equity, Fixed income or hedging products are just emerging in the markets.
Mr. Rehman sees the Islamic private equity sector specially poised for expansion. He bases the natural partnership between Islamic Finance and Private Equity on conceptual and commercial grounds.
Conceptually, he contends that Islamic finance ethos actually seeks “real economy” impact which Private Equity is geared to deliver. Infact he says that the Private equity model represents classic Mudarabah with the GP / LP structure being a strikingly pure example of what a Mudarabah is envisioned to be. Meanwhile, he says that the traditional “Banking” model is inherently constraining with risk-free deposit and lending, and limited equity positions resulting in clients not sharing the upside.
Commercially, Mr Rehman highlights the growing interest and comfort within family businesses to seek private equity in rationalizing their assets. At the same time Sharia compliance is also becoming an important ‘exit’ consideration. Another commercial aspect is the affect of the GCC markets that have severely corrected themselves giving private equity additional prominence.
Fundamentals of Private Equity in the MENA Region
MENA region is seeing a tremendous interest by the global Private Equity industry. David Rubenstein, the Managing Director of Carlyle Group recently commented that, “My proposition is that [the Middle East ] will be the fourth private equity center of the world five to 10 years from now.” Meanwhile a report titled “The most influential people in global private equity,” published by “Private Equity International” magazine, four regional players were recognized as movers and shakers of the industry. These are Mr. David Jackson of Istithmar, Mr. Arif Naqvi of Abraaj Capital, Mr. Sameer Al Ansari of Dubai International Capital and Mr. Hareb Al Darmaki of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.
Today there are a total of approximately 40 plus MENA region based Private Equity players which have grown manifolds in the past two years. In a recent report by Zawya and KPMG, as of mid-2006 there were an estimated US$13 billion in private equity capital currently under management off which 90% had been raised in the last two years.
MENA Region Private Equity Funds Raised, 1997-2006
Also in 2006, the average fund size had increased to US$ 284 million, a three fold increase from that in 2003, when the average fund size was between US$ 80 million and US$ 100 million.
Source: Zawya/ KPMG 2006
Three of the key fundamentals that are also driving this trend are governments’ tremendous strides in improving the regulatory environment, liberalization of the economies, and major infrastructure development demands.
The latest 2008 Doing Business- World Bank Report which investigates the regulations that enhance business activity and those that constrain it covering 178 economies showed Egypt and Saudi Arabia as the Top 10 reformers globally, with Egypt being #1. Similarly, the 2007 Global Competitiveness Report , by the World Economic Forum , has several countries in the Middle East and North Africa region in the upper half of the rankings led by Kuwait (30th), Qatar (31st), Tunisia (32nd), Saudi Arabia (35th) and the United Arab Emirates (37th).
Also, according to an Abraaj Capital analysis the privatization pipeline in the MENA region is expected to cross US$ 1 trillion with approximately 147 privatization transactions either announced or planned in the next ten years. Majority of these privatizations are for infrastructure assets such as roads, airports, bridges, public transit systems, seaports, power stations, power lines, gas pipelines, and communications networks.
‘Exit’ Strategies and Other Challenges
While US$ 6.5 billion has been invested by Private Equity firms since 1998, only 5% (US$ 0.3 billion) has been realized in exits.
The industry is still in the investing phase so the jury is still out on the success and returns by the industry. However, viable exit strategies remain perhaps the biggest challenge for the industry. Even with the massive correction that the regions public markets recently faced, IPO market in the GCC is still one of the most promising exit routes for private equity managers to exit.
Some notable exits include Injazat Technology Funds recent sale of their investment in Atos Origin Middle East (AOME) through the sale of the company to HP, achieving a significant internal rate of return (IRR) of 75%. Also, Raya Holding, yielding a return of over 40 per cent for Injazat and was soon after listed on the Cairo Exchange. The most celebrated early exits for the industry was Abraaj Capitals sale of logistic company Aramex to Arab International Logistic for US$ 189 million in cash.
Some of the other challenges facing the industry include still evolving regulatory limits to foreign ownership, and the regions’ family and government dominated businesses rather unstructured relationship style of negotiating, agreeing to equity terms, and board management expectations.
No Pain No Gain
However, it’s in the midst of these challenges that those with a vision are investing and realizing tremendous opportunities. Mr. Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group recently in his comments differentiated between ‘emerged’ and ‘emerging’ markets. He made the argument that these two type of markets need to be treated differently and that the best investors will go beyond just ‘emerged’ markets (ie China, India) and look to truly emerging economies that are slowly turning the corner and where returns will be maximized.
Given the relative infancy of the PE industry in the MENA region, its fair to say that the Christopher Columbus and Sindbad’s have just set sail, but there’s no denying that a tremendous opportunity awaits for those seeking this ‘new world.’