BY MOHAMED SHOEB
DOHA: Qatar Chamber (QC), the representative body of the private sector, has come under fire from its members for not addressing their issues effectively.
The criticism, including from some prominent businessmen, has brought the chamber under scrutiny soon after elections to its board of directors, which saw participation by less than 13 percent of its 38,000 members.
Critics say the chamber is out of touch and losing the confidence of its members. They have urged the newly-elected board to make efforts to restore the confidence of QC members, the majority of whom are disillusioned with the body as they think it only serves the interests of a handful of big businessmen.
The 40-year-old chamber is criticised for not effectively protecting the interests of budding small and medium enterprises.
Many businessmen and a senior QC official suggested that there is need for major reforms at the chamber to expand its role in a scenario where most of Qatar’s businesses are run by expatriates.
A prominent Qatari businessman, who did not wish to be named, said: “The chamber has become the monopoly of a few people who, instead of serving and protecting the interests of all members, are busy serving themselves.”
However, Remy Rowhani, Director General and CEO of QC, rejected the criticism, saying that “the chamber effectively serves all its members without exception”.
“QC is the authoritative voice of the business community. We mediate with the authorities on behalf of private businesses at the individual as well as institutional levels on various issues after due evaluation of problems,” said Rowhani.
He said QC officials regularly met government functionaries, including ministers, to address problems brought to the chamber’s notice.
Every business in the country is a member of QC. For getting a licence from the Ministry of Economy and Trade, every business has to get membership in QC.
Asked if the chamber had any time frame for addressing issues, Rowhani said: “It is something on which I cannot comment, because it varies from case to case, and also on the burden on us and the ministry concerned, as the economy is growing by leaps and bounds. So it may take one month, two months or more, but we follow it religiously until we get a result, which may be positive or negative.”
Quoting figures, he said the chamber’s resources had not kept pace with growth in the number of members and its workload.
“In 2011, there were 22,000 members, which has grown to about 38,000 (a cumulative growth of 73 percent in three years), while the staff strength at the chamber increased marginally to 90 in 2013 from 70 in 2011 (about 28 percent).”
He said that in compliance with the Qatarization drive the proportion of Qatari workers had grown to 38 percent in 2013 from 26 percent three years ago, which had resulted in an increase in expenses, while revenues from individual members had remained the same.
The chamber charges a membership fee of between QR500 and QR5,000, depending on the size of capital of the company.
“At the local level, as part of our motto at QC to serve members better, we advise our members not to ask what we can offer them, rather we encourage them to let us know what they need, and we try to offer that. We also work to make them realise the importance of their membership of the chamber,” Rowhani said.
He said the chamber helped new investors establish businesses, get licences and find suitable companies that could provide them services they need at minimum cost.
“We also represent the members in different ministries and government departments in solving their issues at zero cost. We also have legal as well as arbitration departments at QC that resolve internal disputes of organisations at no cost or for a minimum fee before the disputes go to court,” added Rowhani.
“We communicate with the 38,000 members on a regular basis through memos about various activities at the QC, including informing them about visits by foreign trade delegations, so that they can network.”
However, the response from the business community was slow, he said.
“There is a lack of communication in the business community. It is not easy to communicate with 38,000 members. Language is a big challenge; going beyond Arabic and English is a challenge. Many of them, especially the SMEs, don’t know that they can come to us for getting issues addressed,” he said.
The board of directors is the chamber’s governing body. It has 17 members, all of whom must be Qatari nationals. Each member is elected to a four-year term, and only registered voters at QC are entitled to vote.
However, critics say that the same members have repeatedly got elected to the board due to their influence and an outdated and impractical voting system. The entire election process needs to be overhauled to make QC more effective, they say.
On the issue of having expatriates on the QC board, the director general said: “This is a good idea. Currently, we do not have any non-Qatari members in our board as per the existing law. This needs to be discussed at different levels, and requires a change in the constitution. But one needs to understand that we serve all our members without exception.”
He said that about 80 percent of the businesses in the country were being run by expatriates, adding: “I’ll be surprised if any expatriate businessman has come to us with a problem and it was not addressed. I will take full responsibility for that.”
On the process of election of board members, Rowhani said: “The elections are monitored by a committee appointed by the Ministry of Economy and Commerce. The dates of elections are announced and individual businesses from different sectors register themselves.”
On the same members being repeatedly re-elected to the board, he said: “Being a member of the board is more of a voluntary job as they are not paid anything for their services to QC. It is a very tedious job. In fact, it is a big sacrifice as they are required to spend a lot of time at the chamber.
“It is true that the current board members have been elected for the third time. But I see it differently. It is because not many businessmen show an interest in being a member of the board as it is a very demanding responsibility.”
He added: “In my humble view, members of QC are not much aware of how a member, after being elected to the board, can get the opportunity to contribute to the people and the business community.”
Asked about the poor turnout in the recently concluded election of a board member, he said: “If there is no quorum (51 percent of the members) on the election date, it is suspended. On the next date announced by the monitoring committee, the elections take place irrespective of the voter turnout.”
Commenting on the revenues and expenditure of the chamber, he said that in 2011 QC generated nearly QR3.5m in revenues from internal activities that are conduct nearly every week. Revenues from the same source rose to QR10m in 2013, and QC aims to increase the figure by 10 percent every year.
Some local businessmen, however, say the newly-elected board members must introspect on the “poor functioning” of QC and the “decreasing interest” among members in elections to board posts.
“This is the time for the board members to ponder on why more than 80 percent of the members did not participate in the recently concluded elections. The board must try to win the confidence of the members who have deserted the house,” said a prominent Qatari businessman.
The businessman said: “We participated and insisted on an election to send a message to the chamber that every member of the QC has the right to participate in a free and fair election to democratically elect the board members.”
Apparently dissatisfied with the existing process of electing board members, he said in a press statement: “The same members are getting elected to the board time and again through consensus, creating an unnatural situation. This has created a sense of dissatisfaction among QC members.”
He welcomed the announcement by QC chairman Sheikh Khalifa bin Jassim Al Thani promising that private businesses, besides members of the board, would be involved in the decision-making process, especially on matters of crucial importance.
Commenting on the move, he said: “We would really like to see the initiative being practically implemented on the ground.”
Ali bin Abdullatif Al Misnad (former honorary treasurer at QC), who got successfully re-elected onto the board, said: “I see no problem in the efficiency and functioning of the chamber. It is doing a wonderful job by facilitating and addressing issues and impediments faced by private businesses.”
On the possibility of expatriates getting representation on the board, Al Misnad told this newspaper: “The existing law limits the membership of the QC board to Qatari nationals. Expatriates becoming members of the board will not be possible without amendment of the law.”
Ali Hassan Al Khalaf, Chairman of Al Khalaf Sons, said that given the country’s rising population and rapidly expanding economic activities, the government was enacting new laws, which were making it more complicated to do business. In this context, the role and importance of QC increased manifold, he said.
Al Khalaf told The Peninsula that QC needed to carry out its functions “more strongly rather than just doing follow-up”.
It should hire qualified professionals to render its services more effectively. At the same time, it needs to understand its role more clearly and peruse issues and problems more carefully, he said.
“It is not easy for individual businesses to resolve issues with various government departments on their own,” noted Al Khalaf.
“The chamber needs to highlight and work on a host of issues related to food security, shortage of manpower, lack of adequate warehouses and construction raw material, delays in customs releasing goods at ports and airports, relatively high shipping and freight charges and many other challenges to ease the country’s dependence on neighbouring states for meeting its daily needs.”
He asked why Qatar Chamber did not work on sourcing some goods directly from producers and creating buffer stocks of such items to last at least six months rather than just having branch offices of major importers here.
On the issue of QC reportedly struggling with limited resources, he said: “This is not true. There is a huge difference (surplus) in the revenue and expenditure. If at all they are facing any financial problems, they should discuss the budget in the general assembly meetings rather than highlighting only auditors’ reports.”
“I appreciate the board discussing visa-related issues and highlighting QC’s achievements at the international level, but at the same time it should realise that members are more concerned with their local and day-to-day problems that I have mentioned.”
Asked about the poor participation of members in the elections, Al Khalaf, said: “The existing system of election is archaic and not practical. We need to upgrade it by using advanced tools and cutting-edge technology. The current system of election promotes the chances of a few individuals getting elected to the board. The whole process of election needs bold reforms.”
He said that holding elections on a second date irrespective of the turnout, after postponing voting on the first date due to lack of quorum was not practical.
“The board members do not provide any agenda or programme for what they are going to do over the next four years as members of the board,” said Al Khalaf, asking how one could evaluate their performance on the completion of their term in such a situation.
Mahmoud Younes, Chairman of Qatari Engineering Business Company, said: “QC may be beneficial for big businesses and doing a great job at the international level, but I find it less effective in solving the issues of small and mid-sized companies.
“We approached the chamber seeking support on some visa-related issues. As an engineering firm we need visas for professionals from specific countries, such as India, Bangladesh and other South Asian countries, instead of countries whose workers are not very efficient and also face language barriers. But we did not get the necessary support from QC in this regard.”
Asked if he had any wish to be on the board, he said: “My passport is not Qatari, but I do not face any discrimination or problem anywhere I go. We do not have problems with the chamber’s functioning.”
Yousef Mousa Abu Helaiqa, a Qatari businessman active in the construction and retail sectors, said: “QC and government authorities should always keep the interests of local businesses in mind while framing any rules or laws. Protecting locals’ interests will help diversify the economy and achieve sustainable development.”
Suhaila Rabia Hareb, a Qatari businesswoman who was initially barred from contesting the election and later allowed after intervention by the Ministry of Economy and Commerce, had said earlier: “It is important that businesswomen are helped to widen their role in the chamber.”
Hareb had alleged that a lobby of influential businessmen got elected to the board in every poll and it did not want others to contest the election and challenge their sway.
She suggested a quota system to ensure adequate representation for women on the QC board, and increasing the number of board members from 17 to 21, with four seats reserved for women. THE PENINSULA