It’s hard not to be at least a little flabbergasted when looking through China International Development and Investment Corporation Ltd. (CIDIC) President and CEO Oswald Wong’s career summary- besides details about the senior executive roles and responsibilities he has had to shoulder in his various jobs so far, the resume that I looked at (which is eight pages long, by the way) is peppered with images of Wong’s meetings with several distinguished business personalities from the Middle East. These include H.E. Saeed Mubarak Al-Hajeri, Chairman of the Board at Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (TAQA), Aabar Investments CEO Mohamed Hamad Al Mehairi, Sobha Group founder and Chairman P. N. C. Menon, Emaar Properties COO Amit Jain, and so forth- Wong’s resume thus makes it seem that this Hong Kong-er is quite comfortably connected to this region’s business community. As for how this came to be: well, that’s where Wong’s enterprise, CIDIC, comes into the picture. A diversified investment company based out of Hong Kong, CIDIC is focusing primarily on infrastructure and property development, with its business activities stretching all around the world. Projects under its current purview include a US$1.4 billion mixed-used development at Arizona in the United States, a $1.2 billion biofuel project at KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga in South Africa, a $125 million residential development at Alberta in Canada, and a $350 million hospital project in Saudi Arabia. When I asked Wong if there was an approximate amount that he thinks CIDIC would be investing in projects in the Middle East, he replied that the enterprise is targeting projects that go from a “minimum $50 million, up to $2 billion in construction value.”
The sheer size of the investment his company is considering to spread around in to the region is, indeed, impressive and welcome, with Wong noting that CIDIC’s target sectors in the Middle East include property development and infrastructure, with the latter focusing mainly on power projects like solar energy, and –perhaps surprisingly- waste management as well. “I have good faith in the waste management [sector] in this region,” Wong says. “I do believe there’s a big chance and opportunity on the waste management sector, especially in waste-to- energy [projects].” Wong reveals that he’s already in discussions with various entities in the region, with the aim being to have local partners for the projects CIDIC chooses to invest in. “Although we cannot say we are very new to the market, this world is a totally different one to the Western one,” he explains. “So it’s better to have someone locally as [a partner].” According to Wong, these partnerships will be realized in the form of SPVs (special purpose vehicles) with CIDIC, thereby enabling projects to be executed without too many hitches along the way. But what are the factors that govern the selection of a project by CIDIC in the first place? “The first is the location of the projects,” Wong explains. “Second, we need to see how is the purchasing power of the locals. Third, we need to see the local law and regulation- is this something that’s feasible and good for us? Fourth is the local contribution [to the projects]. And the last [factor] is the vision of the country, its local utilities, infrastructure, etc.”
Given these parameters, and the industry sectors that CIDIC is interested in, it should come as no surprise that the Middle Eastern countries that Wong is currently keeping an eye on include the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But while these big projects will see CIDIC working with, well, big entities, Wong reveals that his enterprise is looking to involve SMEs in the region in certain capacities as well. “We try to use the local companies for all the local support,” he says. “We try to use local [entities], rather than going for international ones- even if the local [entity] may charge us a higher price than the other. This is one form of support we show for the local SME sector. Secondly, we are trying to cooperate with various SMEs in the local space- like, say, recently, we were planning an event, and we decided to use a local company to handle media, a local company to organize the event, etc. And thirdly, we are also targeting to do investment in SMEs, but again, that depends on the company. At the moment, we are not investing in any SME; it’s not in the scope of our works right now, but maybe in the future, yes.” In line with CIDIC’s project strategy in the region, Wong says that he’d look out for SMEs working in the fields of property and infrastructure development, but adds industry to the mix, especially in the power sector. For the record though, Wong is indeed putting his money where his mouth is- CIDIC recently partnered with the UAE-based SME Sulty Events and Entertainment to put together an exhibition showcasing the ink paintings of acclaimed Chinese artist Shi Dachan for the first time in the country. In a statement, Vanessa de Caires, owner of Sulty Events and Entertainment, said, “As a well-organized organization, we are delighted by the confidence shown by CIDIC to our firm, and we are committed to making our first Chinese art related project for the exhibition and cultural exchange a success.” In the same release, Wong reiterated his commitment to empowering the local SME sector, while enhancing the China-UAE relationship as well: “Collaborating with other countries and their growth initiatives with young dynamic entrepreneurs benefits the progress of both countries, and we look forward to building bridges with this exhibition.”
It’s easy to see from Wong’s statements that his strategy for CIDIC in the Middle East is adherent to the “One Belt, One Road” initiative being spearheaded by the Chinese government. As a development strategy aimed at increasing China’s cooperation and connectivity with Eurasia, “One Belt, One Road” was unveiled in 2013, and has since been making headlines for its potential to reshape global trade. While many Chinese companies have signed up to be a part of the “One Belt, One Road” drive, Wong says that CIDIC is hoping to differentiate itself in the manner it implements this particular scheme. “They [other Chinese companies] try to bring everything from China- labor, equipment, management, etc.,” Wong notes. “They have a little bit of a hesitation to use local [talent]- they have no localization. And this is a major difference between us and the [other] national companies.” Wong believes that while capital and know-how from China may be used to govern overseas projects under the “One Belt, One Road” scheme, there also needs to be a concerted attempt at utilizing the local resources, and creating job opportunities for the talent in those markets as well. This thus explains CIDIC’s modus operandi in the Middle East- Wong is keen on not just paying lip service to the “One Belt, One Road” initiative; he’s insistent on making regional collaboration a key aspect of his company’s endeavors in this region, and he’s in it for the long haul. “Long-term plans, we’ll stay here at least till a minimum of 2025,” he says. “We are trying to have more investment in the infrastructure side- that’s our target, frankly speaking.” Wong adds that the future could also possibly see him look at other sectors like industry, media, and hospitality in the region, given the grand visions countries in this region have for themselves- which essentially means that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Wong and CIDIC in the Middle East in the future. And Wong’s insistence on making local participation a key part of CIDIC’s agenda here can only mean good things for this region- and it’s something that will be worth looking forward to.