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Toronto native sells potential of little-known Arab emirate

Rino Sabatino, investment advisor to His Highness Sheikh Saud of Ras Al Khaimah of the United Arab Emirates, is photographed by the Humber Bay Arch Bridge on May 26 2014. Sabatino is "also Chief Executive Officer of RAKIA, the Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Rino Sabatino tells people he heads up the industrial engine of Ras Al Khaimah, few people know what he's talking about.

But the Toronto native is now responsible for selling the world on the investment potential of this northernmost region of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – a would-be oasis of manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and other industry that is home to about half a million people. He has also stepped in as investment adviser to the emirate's ruler, Sheik Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi.

Mr. Sabatino is a construction and investment specialist who cut his teeth at Tridel Enterprises Inc. where he served as vice-president of international business development. Now he hopes to attract big institutional players and other companies from Canada and around the world to the desert expanse of mountains and beaches located one hour north of Dubai, the most populous of the seven emirates. But first, he has to introduce himself.

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"We have been developing deliberately under the radar. We're not Dubai, and we don't want to be Dubai," Mr. Sabatino said in an interview in Toronto, adding that few business people in the city have ever heard of Ras Al Khaimah. The sheikdom is less saturated, expensive and bureaucratic than Dubai or UAE capital Abu Dhabi, he said, comparing it to municipalities around Toronto, such as Newmarket, Ont.

Mr. Sabatino first moved to Dubai with his wife Lucia more than eight years ago when he took a job as chief executive of Lootah Group, an industrial real estate conglomerate owned by a prominent local family in Dubai. The mannerisms of chairman Ibrahim Sa'eed Lootah, reminded Mr. Sabatino of his own Italian father, who worked in the commercial building industry in Toronto.

Those were "crazy times" in the Middle Eastern real estate business, Mr. Sabatino said. Dubai's economic boom was led by many large family-owned enterprises, which he likened to the U.S. industrial revolution when the Carnegies, Mellons and Rockefellers drove progress.

"It was what I called the '-est of the world' – everything was 'the richest, the highest, the longest,'" Mr. Sabatino said. He began his role advising the Sheik, who studied economics at the University of Michigan, three months ago.

It's a different challenge. Ras Al Khaimah is seeking stability, rather than the glitz of Dubai. There are about 7,000 commercial businesses operating in the region, and the RAK Investment Authority plans to lease more raw land and warehouses to foreign businesses to build or distribute their products, with no corporate or individual tax, allowing 100 per cent repatriation of profits. In some arrangements companies pay customs duties, in others they must have joint ownership structures. Businesses operating in the region include Indian commercial vehicle maker Ashok Leyland Ltd. and Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Guardian Industries Corp., which produces glass. It's also home to the world's largest ceramic manufacture, RAK Ceramics, which exports tile to about 200 countries.

"I'm bricks and mortar," Mr. Sabatino said, thumping a palm on the table. "You want the gold? You want Hermes and Gucci? It's an hour away. If you're a sophisticated business that wants to build, and wants support from a very pro-business government and ruler … if you want a stable, long-term, boring investment? I'm the place to be."

Boring, maybe. But Ras Al Khaimah also wants a slice of Dubai's tourism – the palatial Hilton Waldorf Astoria hotel recently opened, and there are four man-made islands. Mr. Sabatino is working on finding a partner to develop one of the islands. Mr. Sabatino is also seeking partners for a new power plant to help feed all the new development.

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It is not always easy for a Westerner to work in the UAE, which requires some cultural sensitivity. Mr. Sabatino and his wife have made local friends, but socialize separately in their homes. "We don't mingle, as is the custom" he said.

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About the Author
Financial Services Reporter

Jacqueline Nelson is a financial services reporter at the Report on Business. Prior to that she was a staff writer at Canadian Business magazine, covering news and writing features on a wide variety of subjects. More


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