Staying buoyant as the global markets waver is a tough call, but Cairo is flourishing from its strong core, says Jonathan Hart
If Cairo Is feeling any impact from a global credit crunch, you wouldn't immediately notice. To the casual visitor, this teeming ancient metropolis, forever in the throes of restructuring or re-invention, can always flatter to deceive.
Similar to delving amid souks old or new, like the recently opened El-Fustat in the old town, a degree of caution plus a reliable local contact are essential to separating actuality from artifice.
What can't be disputed is a general appetite for business and investment that has never been more buoyant in a place once deemed as an expensive and bureaucratic black hole for fresh ideas and opportunities.
Together with political stability, new business reforms have been helping to underpin a national economy that has grown at seven per cent over the past two years and still looks set to exceed that this year, making it one of the fastest growing in the world.
As measured by Cairo, Egypt jumped 26 places to become one of the top two reformers across 178 economies, according to the World Bank Doing Business 2008 report, and the capital now has most of the credentials to secure its future as a formidable international and regional business centre.
Along with extensive banking reforms and privatisation, income and corporate travel taxes have been cut to a flat 20 per cent. Customs duties and bureaucracy have also been cut, particularly on business start-ups and registration.
The World Bank says Minimum capital investment requirements for businesses have been slashed and primary regulatory procedures halved. It warns that while costs remain relatively high from an international perspective and while obtaining a construction permit, for example, still requires 28 procedures and 249 days, an average of only seven procedures and nine days are now required to set up a business in Cairo.
Helping to sustain the buoyant mood is the Smart Village international business park on the Cairo-Alexandria road on the outskirts of the city. There are already more than 100 businesses, including Microsoft, Vodafone and major banks on this purpose-built site.
The Cairo and Alexandria Stock Exchange (CASE), whose growth has reputedly exceeded 1,000 per cent over the past four years, moves here next year and the current 12,000 workforce at Smart Village is expected to top 80,000 by 2014.
In tandem, the Stock Exchange has embraced the electronic era, with online trading, margin trading and short selling.
There are no restrictions on foreign participation and no rules against repatriation of dividends or capital gains. Foreign investors are said to hold about one third of the market and foreign member firms are reputedly treated on a par with their Egyptian counterparts.
With Cairo as either a base or conduit, foreign direct investment in Egypt has increased to 8.5 per cent of GDP, worth about £5.5 billion compared to just over £200 million five years ago.
The UK is the single largest foreign investor with cumulative investments worth £10 billion, according to UK Trade & Investment. An estimated 600 UK companies, including the major petroleum and pharmaceutical corporations, are present along with a one million-a-year British tourist market.
Bilateral trade topped £2 billion in 2006 and UK exports grew 20 per cent to £692 million last year.
UK T&I identifies education and skills, ports and logistics, water and wastewater and railways as new target sectors, alongside niche opportunities in agriculture, chemicals, environment, financial services, fire and security, healthcare, IT, oil and gas and renewable energy.
All are indicators of a positive surge forward being made by a 4,000-year-old city whose most recent past as a place to do business has been, at best, chequered or viewed as being unreliable and mired in the realms of geopolitical uncertainties. A place where hygiene was suspect and you couldn't even drink the water.
If there is a downside to the new order it's that Cairo, for all its modern face, newly open attitudes and opportunities, is still not the easiest city for individual travellers to come to terms with, either physically or mentally.
Straddling both sides of the Nile, incorporating two islands and sprawling ever outwards into the desert beyond, its size alone can be daunting. Negotiating your way between a dozen different districts, exacerbated by heat, pollution and congested roads, can render more than a single meeting in a day beyond your hotel a veritable triumph over adversity.
A meeting anyway that your Cairene counterparts are likely to either be late for, take phone calls during or be called away from to deal with other 'business'. While the route to international dealing may be newly clear, fully understanding some of the local customs or habits can still be the equivalent of deciphering age-old hieroglyphics.
An additional drawback is that extreme wealth and abject poverty continue to live side by side in this cauldron of 17 million people, evident in frequent issues of dissent breaking the surface of an ostensibly harmonious whole. These, perhaps, are not so much a deterrent to doing business in the new Cairo as echoing the underlying note of caution needed.
Warm days (18°-25°C) and chilly nights from September to April; very hot (30° - 40°C) from May to August. Low rainfall and relatively low humidity year-round.
The British Embassy Cairo, www.gov.uk
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office, www.fco.gov.uk
visitor information, www.gotoegypt.org
Validity minimum six months; no visa required by UK residents
Country code 20
GMT + 2
Expected with most transactions
Egyptian Pounds 10.88=£1 (April 08)
January 1 New Year's Day
January 7, Coptic Christmas
March 20, Prophet's Birthday
March 23/24, Western Easter
April 27, Coptic Easter
April 28, Sham El Nessim
July: 23, Egyptian National Day
October 1-2, Eid El Fitri
October6, Armed Forces Day
December 8-11, Eid el Adha
December 25/26 Christmas Day/Boxing Day
FCO Travel Advice
High threat of indiscriminate terrorist attacks against civilian/foreign targets. Low risk of Avian flu. Low crime rate, but take sensible precautions against theft of valuables.
2791 6000 (British Consulate)
There are more than 20 direct daily flights from London Heathrow to Cairo. Bmi offers daily departures at 09.15 arriving 16.10 (Saturdays 08.55/15.50) plus codeshares with Egyptair and Lufthansa. In addition to codeshare services, Egyptair and British Airways also fly daily non-stop.
Cairo International Airport at Heliopolis is located 15 kilometres north-east of the downtown business district. Along with four runways, there are two main terminals linked by free shuttle bus, plus a third due to open later this year at Africa's second busiest airport after Johannesburg.
Two main roads connect the airport with downtown by taxi (from £4 - £8) or fixed-fee limousine service (£4.50). There is also a shuttle bus service to/from Heliopolis, Nasr City, downtown, Giza, Mohandesin, Zamalek, Maadi and Haram. A Metro link between the airport and Giza is expected to be added some time in 2010.
A good selection of familiar five-star brands including a new Sofitel, Grand Hyatt, Conrad, JW Marriott, Four Seasons, Le Meridien, Sheraton, Oberoi and choice of Movenpicks, Hiltons and InterContinentals.
Sheraton Cairo is currently undergoing major renovation and InterContinental Cairo Citystars has added a third club floor. Safir and Longchamps are among upscale local choices. Talisman is one of the rare boutique hotels. The major five-stars double as meeting venues and most also offer casinos.
Muslim rules so mostly in the restaurants, bars and pubs of hotels - or on riverboats - where alcohol is permitted. Can be combined with traditional tourist pursuits including belly dance performances, felucca trips, visits to souks and museums and horse or camel rides at The Pyramids.