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Inflation, cybersecurity and taxes: PwC’s update from Dubai

What happens in Dubai … well, happens everywhere

On March 1, PwC Dubai hosted a LinkedIn webcast, “Transforming Our Region,” featuring commentary by Stephen Anderson, PwC Middle East markets leader; Richard Boxshall, PwC chief economist for the region; and Hanan Abboud, a partner in PwC’s International Tax & M&A practice. This latest episode of the webcast series, which started in the summer of 2020, included three main themes, two of which likely resonate strongly outside the Middle East region.

Global inflation can be a drag, but regionally not so bad

First, Anderson and Boxshall noted recent regional economic growth and an overall positive picture, particularly as the pandemic begins to wane, but cautioned about inflation as a damper in the near term, with a critical caveat: Many of the global inflationary pressures and trends have been more muted in the Middle East, particularly within the economies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Boxshall reported that inflation has been relatively low and well managed locally, at around 2% for the region, but varies widely across countries.

Like elsewhere, energy prices and supply chain snafus drive most of the inflationary concerns and effects in the Middle East, but high oil prices act as a double-edged sword for some of the most important regional economies, as more money flows into government coffers while demand is put at risk of being suppressed in the long run. Overall, PwC reported on the cautious sentiment in the region as the business leaders it surveyed see inflation elsewhere and hope for sustained smart economic stewardship to keep inflation low in the region.

Cybersecurity tops concerns

Investment and innovation comprised a second regional trend with global echoes, primarily because of the main concern about what could hold back growth: cybersecurity risks. According to Anderson, cybersecurity generated more worry among Middle East business leaders than geopolitical tensions or lingering pandemic-related healthcare risks. Notably, PwC’s survey did not factor in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which could bring geopolitics to the forefront. In TBR’s view, consultancies like PwC that can address clients’ cybersecurity concerns in concert with offerings around innovation, transformation and sustainability will continue to outpace cyber-centric or niche vendors as client leaders increasingly appreciate the business value of integrating cybersecurity into enterprisewide strategy.

Joining the global movement toward 15% tax rate

The last development PwC highlighted will have the greatest near-term effect in the UAE but bodes well for global economic growth and regional good governance. Anderson and his colleagues noted that the UAE became the first country in the region to announce plans to adhere to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) guidelines by instituting a 15% minimum corporate tax rate. With the country planning to implement the 15% tax rate effective June 1, 2023, and the local business corporate tax rate capped at 9%, PwC acknowledged plenty of unknowns and expects plenty of exemptions. But overall UAE is continuing its decades-long efforts to keep the country economically attractive and closely intertwined with the global economy.

Advising clients on adjustments to the new 15% tax rate, to include navigating free-trade-zone rules, will provide near-term opportunities in the UAE and longer-term revenues as other regional governments adopt similar tax structures. For PwC, a new UAE tax regime aligns perfectly with PwC’s The New Equation strategy and emphasis on trust, transparency and global interconnectedness. As TBR noted in November, “Globally, PwC partners were leaning into the trust and leadership components of The New Equation and finding clients receptive to, and even welcoming of, PwC’s efforts to ‘peek around the corner’ at trends, challenges and opportunities on the near and far horizons.”

Don’t bet against the Emirates

In TBR’s estimates, PwC’s 2021 management consulting revenues in the Middle East topped $670 million, roughly one-third of the firm’s APAC revenues but growing faster than any other PwC region. Inflation spikes and cybersecurity strikes may slow that growth, but a more likely scenario is that the UAE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other regional economies will maintain their rapid growth as their booming talent pools and friendly tax and corporate governance structures continue to draw investments and continue to create opportunities for consultancies like PwC. I served in Dubai, UAE, as a foreign service officer for the State Department in the late 1990s and know it’s a fool’s bet to think the UAE won’t, eventually and sometimes in surprising ways, do exactly what they say they’re going to do.

A Roaring ’20s for the Middle East?

PwC on post-pandemic digital transformation in the Middle East

On their March 23 webcast, “Transitioning to the New Normal,” PwC’s Middle East leaders discussed the results of their 24th annual CEO survey, focusing on findings specific to their region. Guided by Middle East Clients and Market Leader Stephen Anderson, the conversation highlighted four themes: growth, lessons learned, transformation, and threats, particularly around cybersecurity and talent. In addition to the respondents’ overall confidence that 2021 and 2022 will be growth years for the region, one highly notable findings was that 59% of Middle East CEOs surveyed are planning double-digit increases in their investments in digital transformation this year. Not only does that percentage track closely with TBR’s Digital Transformation: Voice of the Customer Research, but it also far outpaces any other area for investment, at least among Middle East-based CEOs.

The PwC leaders noted that while 2020 put considerable revenue pressure on most regional businesses, companies also used the pandemic as a catalyst to cut costs. But for 2021, cost-efficiency trails digital transformation as a priority. Again, this tracks closely with our own research, which found that companies are prioritizing investment in cloud and managed services over digital transformation for this year. Cloud demand stems directly from the pandemic and the move to remote working, while the increase in demand for managed services has been building for years.

In TBR’s recent survey, over two-thirds of respondents are planning to increase their budget for managed services over the next year, which will create opportunities for vendors that can tie cost savings to managed services solutions. Also echoing TBR’s research around global delivery and automation, PwC’s survey found that “productivity through automation and technology” ranked as the top “workforce strategy” in 2021, jumping from 6% of respondents in 2016 to 46% in 2021.

The twin threats of cybersecurity and talent

In discussing threats to growth in 2021, the PwC team described the Middle East as being ahead of the rest of the world in terms of both reducing headcount early in the pandemic and now rehiring to meet returning demands. The challenge, shared globally based on TBR’s discussions with IT services vendors and consultancies over the last year, remains finding skilled talent, upskilling current talent and managing the overall talent base, especially in a highly competitive market for digitally versed professionals. PwC’s Middle East team suggested closer cooperation between commercial entities, local governments and higher education providers would be key to regional companies being able to recruit enough skilled talent in the near term. (Quick side note: PwC has a product that may be instrumental in tackling that talent shortage.)

As for cybersecurity, the PwC team acknowledged the reality that the 2020 rush to the cloud, sparked by the move to remote working, opened the doors to new cybersecurity vulnerabilities, leading over 40% of Middle East CEOs in PwC’s survey to rank security as a threat to growth this year. According to TBR’s Digital Transformation: Voice of the Customer Research, 26% of the surveyed respondents in Europe see regulatory compliance risk as an impediment to successful digital transformations. In the same study, 50% of the respondents overall said the most critical attribute for vendor selection remained working knowledge of digital-related security, risk and privacy issues.

But we made it through together

Thankfully, the webcast didn’t end on the pessimistic note of threats and talent shortages. Instead, the PwC team observed that the region’s people — across all businesses and professions — had been “stress tested,” had become more adept at new ways of working, had found a new appreciation for “others’ well-being,” and were poised to build on the lessons learned and change atmosphere and, perhaps, welcome in a new Roaring ’20s.

Throwing a bit of a black cloud on that optimism, in the PwC CEO survey, the widest gap between Middle East CEOs and the global respondents occurred on the subject of “geopolitical uncertainty,” which CEOs from the Middle East saw as a far larger threat to growth. In contrast, Middle East CEOs were markedly less concerned than their global counterparts about overregulation as a hindrance to growth, perhaps pointing the way toward what TBR believes could be a path to success in the region in 2021: follow the Dubai, United Arab Emirates, promise of no new government fees until 2023 and the Omani shift toward more access for investors. Using competitive pressures within the region to continue to make the Middle East as a whole more attractive to global investment and trade will likely remain a key strategy for local CEOs and government leaders.

TBR has tracked developments in the region through special reports on Egypt and other nearby countries and IT services vendors’ investments as well as the financial and performance metrics of management consultancies published semiannually in TBR’s Management Consulting Benchmark.

CSPs accelerate 5G deployments to realize the significant cost efficiencies that are inherent in the technology

According to TBR’s 1Q19 5G Telecom Market Landscape, though a viable business case for operators to grow revenue from 5G has yet to materialize (with the exception of fixed wireless broadband), the main driver for operators to deploy 5G is realizing the efficiency gains the technology provides over LTE.

Operators in developed markets worldwide have accelerated their 5G deployment timetables over the past year, primarily because 5G is a significantly more cost-effective solution to handle rising data traffic in their traditional connectivity businesses but also to remain competitive in their respective markets.

TBR estimates over 80% of 5G capex spend through 2020 will be driven by operators in four countries: the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea, with the remaining 20% of spend through 2020 predominantly stemming from Europe and developed countries in the Middle East and APAC that have relatively small populations. Most Tier 1 operators in these countries have aggressive 5G rollout timetables and intend to leverage the technology for fixed wireless broadband and/or to support their mobile broadband densification initiatives. The seamless software upgradability of new RAN platforms to 5G will facilitate deployment at incremental cost, keeping overall spend scaling quickly but at a relatively low level compared to prior RAN generation upgrades.

TBR’s 5G Telecom Market Landscape tracks the 5G-related initiatives of leading operators and vendors worldwide. The report provides a comprehensive overview of the global 5G ecosystem and includes insights pertaining to market development, market sizing, use cases, adoption, regional trends, and operator and vendor positioning and strategies.