Lunch with Felix Neugart: The Arab-German Verbindung
The CEO of German Emirati Joint Council for Industry and Commerce believes much more needs to be done to bring businesses on both sides closer
Felix Neugart is not just another German who can speak Arabic. He can also adorn himself in Bavarian attire – called “Lederhose” – to welcome guests at the famous German Oktoberfest event in Dubai. For these reasons, he can be called a true Arab-German Verbindung (connection).
As CEO of the semi-government AHK – the German Emirati Joint Council for Industry and Commerce – Felix has been facilitating businesses on either side. He takes even greater pride in his understanding of the Arab world’s history, art and culture and of course businesses.
We opt for a three-course business lunch at Alta Badia, an Italian cuisine joint perched atop Emirates Towers, overlooking a stunning view of Dubai’s waterfront. The place claims to be home for “honest Italian cuisine” and we agreed to go for a set menu. Around an hour of sumptuous food later, we agreed to skip desserts.
Prior to joining AHK, Felix was member of the Advisory Group for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) of the EU Commission in Brussels and had also served as managing director of International Economic Policy at the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) in Berlin. He has also been a research fellow at the Munich-based Center for Applied Policy Research.
Besides the AHK outfits in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the 40-something Felix also oversees its Qatar, Kuwait and Oman operations. AHK is also represented in Iraq and has a business office in Riyadh, which are all part of its network. All those responsibilities seem to have made Felix into an intense character and one has to probe beyond his businessman-like mannerisms to find other shades of his personality.
Music and sports, Felix admits, are among a number of his other interests. Felix chooses Insalata Di Gamberi for starters. It came with roasted shrimp, farmer salad and avocado and mango dressing. I chose Bruschetta, which had tomato-diced basil, burrata cheese and rocket salad.
‘Only bilateral business organization’
AHK was established in 2009 and has 500 member companies on its list. It is part of the global network comprising of 120 offices in 80 countries. “We are proud to be the only bilateral business organization in the Gulf region,” says Felix. This is also reflected in the AHK board, which consists of German as well as Emirati business representatives.
AHK offers services to companies that want to enter the UAE/Gulf or German markets. They range from automobile and energy companies to healthcare, infrastructure and food products. Even in troubled Iraq, a German pavilion will find place at the Baghdad Trade Fair next month, courtesy AHK.
The conversation briefly veers toward the troubled country and the refugee crisis facing Europe as a result of conflicts in the Middle East. Felix takes a more holistic view. “Germany is a very strong and self-sufficient country, which also explains why it was able to accommodate one million Syrians. But this is also a challenge for the German government.”
No business of government
However, Felix says, German businesses are not so close to the government as is the case in some other countries. “Also, it’s the SMEs that are very strong in Germany and they are very internationally-oriented. Such companies are flexible and adapt very quickly. Sometimes if you are not perceived as a political entity, it helps”.
With Chinese companies trying to fill these areas in the region, Felix agrees, that Asia is one major challenge. But that’s not the only challenge. “Many projects in the Middle East are very large. They are huge turn-key projects that run into [the] billions. These are something that medium-sized German firms cannot take because of the risks and liability,” he says.
German companies can fill the gap in energy efficiency, which is getting big in this part of the world. “Germany is the largest tourism destination for the Gulf tourists in Europe, which is important,” he says. However, he also admits that the competition is growing.
The language Verbindung
But what are the synergies between Arab and German businesses? Felix highlights the fact that Germany had no colonial empire like the British and the French, which makes them apolitical. On the other hand, there have been some very well-known Arabic linguists from Germany on the Arabic language.
Felix mentions what perhaps is the most enduring language connection, referring to Hans Wehr, a German Arabist and professor at the University of Munster, who published the Arabisches Wörterbuch in 1952.
The book was later published in English as A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Arabisches Wörterbuch is regarded as the standard scholarly dictionary of Arabic for English-speaking students and scholars of the language. “As far as I know, this was one of the main dictionaries between English and Arabic.”
Small is beautiful
The presence of a large number of German small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Dubai and elsewhere in the region is a testimony to their success. However, Felix chooses to look at those firms, on either side, who still choose to work with partners. “There has been some successes but much more could be done.”
According to him, it is important to develop relations between Germany and the Arab Gulf countries and business has a big role to play in it. “It is an area that we want to contribute by working with our partners and to help companies present here to increase their business relations further.”
Felix learnt Arabic in Syria and is sad about the state of affairs in that country. He can only keep abreast of the developments in the country on Al Arabiya News Channel which also helps him “brush up Arabic-speaking skills.”